Ruling on a question of law from a federal district court, the Tennessee Supreme Court has determined that a job applicant has no cause of action against a prospective employer in Tennessee if the prospective employer failed to hire the job applicant because the applicant had filed, or is likely to file, a workers’ compensation claim against a previous employer. Yardley v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, No. M2014-01723-SC-R23-CV (Aug. 21, 2015).

Background

Kighwaunda Yardley began working as a housekeeping aide at the University Medical Center in Lebanon in 1998. In 2010, she was injured on the job and began receiving workers’ compensation benefits; she performed light-duty work at the hospital, planning to return to her housekeeping position when her doctor released her to full-duty work.

In 2012, while Yardley was still on light duty and not working in the housekeeping department, the University Medical Center contracted with Hospital Housekeeping Systems to perform the hospital’s cleaning services. Hospital Housekeeping agreed to interview the hospital’s housekeeping employees with the option of hiring any of the employees to continue in their positions. Yardley was not interviewed or hired by Hospital Housekeeping.

In August 2012, when Yardley was released for full-duty work, she applied for work with Hospital Housekeeping. However, she was not hired, in part because she had previously filed a workers’ compensation claim while employed by the hospital.

Yardley sued Hospital Housekeeping in federal district court, claiming the failure to hire her because of her previous workers’ compensation claim amounted to a retaliatory failure to hire, cognizable under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act, among other claims. She admitted that this cause of action had not been recognized in Tennessee.

The federal district court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to consider whether there should be a cause of action for retaliatory failure to hire in Tennessee.

No Cause of Action

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court declined to recognize a cause of action for retaliatory failure to hire under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation laws, public policy, or Tennessee common law. While some states allow this type of lawsuit, the Court explained, Tennessee is an employment-at-will state and the legislature has not created this cause of action. It was unwilling to judicially craft an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.

The Court disagreed with the argument that an employer’s failure to hire a job applicant on the basis of workers’ compensation claim previously filed is like a retaliatory discharge. Retaliatory discharge is a recognized cause of action in Tennessee.

While an at-will employee may not be fired for “taking an action encouraged by public policy,” such as filing a workers’ compensation claim, it said, there is a fundamental difference between discharging an employee and refusing to hire a job applicant. The Court pointed out that the basis of liability under the workers’ compensation laws is the employer-employee relationship, but Yardley’s relationship to Hospital Housekeeping was merely that of job applicant. Under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation laws, Yardley has no cause of action against Hospital Housekeeping.