The Ohio Supreme Court held yesterday that a discharged employee is barred from pursuing an action for age discrimination under R.C. § 4112.99 when the discharge has been arbitrated and was found to be for just cause. More specifically, the Court concluded that R.C. § 4112.14(C), which prohibits age discrimination lawsuits if an arbitrator upheld a discharge for just cause, applies to age discrimination claims brought under § 4112.99. So if a Plaintiff files a lawsuit under § 4112.99, even though this provision does not mention arbitration proceedings, the state age discrimination claim may still be prohibited by § 4112.14(C). Meyer v. UPS, Inc., 2009-Ohio-2463.
In Meyer, the plaintiff, Robert Meyer, was fired from his employment with UPS. The grievance filed by Mr. Meyer over his discharge was denied, and his discharge was upheld by a panel of union members and company management. Mr. Meyer filed a complaint in state court alleging workers compensation retaliation and amended the complaint to add state claims for age discrimination. Under Ohio law, a plaintiff may choose between several age discrimination statutes, including § 4112.02(N), § 4112.14, or § 4112.99. These statutes provide different damages to a plaintiff and arguably are covered by different statutes of limitations. Section 4112.14 is the only one that refers to arbitration. In this case, Mr. Meyer chose to file his claim under § 4112.99.
First, the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the grievance panel was the functional equivalent of arbitration for purposes of § 4112.14(C). For employers, this presumably broadens the number of cases that will be barred since the Supreme Court held that a single arbitrator is not required.
Next, the Supreme Court found that § 4112.99 is a gap-filler and does not govern the specifics of an age discrimination claim. Accordingly, “an age discrimination claim brought pursuant to R.C. 4112.99 is subject to the substantive provisions of R.C. 4112.02 and 4112.14.” Accordingly, the ban related to filing a lawsuit after a matter has been arbitrated applies to cases filed under § 4112.99.
In addition to this explicit holding related to arbitration, the Meyer case also suggests that plaintiffs cannot avoid the specific provisions of § 4112.14 by couching an age discrimination claim as a § 4112.99 claim. In other words, § 4112.99 cannot be used by plaintiffs to get a jury trial or compensatory or punitive damages if the claim is based on § 4112.14. The Court’s opinion, as mentioned above, states that § 4112.99 is a gap-filler. Because § 4112.14 specifically governs age discrimination claims, no gap-filler is necessary. According to the Court, “[t]o allow the general provisions of R.C. 4112.99 to prevail over the specific provisions of . . . 4112.14 would ignore the relevant statutes and would turn the framework of R.C. Chapter 4112 relating to age discrimination on its head.” This language strongly suggests that § 4112.99 cannot be used by plaintiffs to, for example, get a jury trial or compensatory or punitive damages if the claim is based on a violation § 4112.14 – which does not permit any of these things.
Finally, the issue of what statute of limitations applies to § 4112.14 age claims remains an open issue. The Court did, however, expressly reject the plaintiff’s argument that all age claims brought under § 4112.99 are subject to a six-year statute of limitations.
Overall, the case is good for employers, particularly those who routinely use a grievance or arbitration procedure. While employees whose discharge was upheld through arbitration – or an equivalent process – can still pursue a federal claim, they are significantly restricted – if not altogether prohibited – in their ability to bring a state law claim.