The Ohio Supreme Court has now issued an opinion that will benefit Ohio employers and permit them to manage the attendance of employees with workers' compensation claims more effectively. In an important decision affecting all Ohio employers, the Ohio Supreme Court has expressly limited its decision in Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School District to the circumstances specifically presented in Coolidge. This decision—Bickers v. Western & Southern Life Insurance Company, Slip Opinion No. 2007-Ohio-6751 (issued December 20, 2007)—clarifies that at-will employees like Ms. Bickers do not have wrongful discharge claims when terminated as a result of the application of attendance policies, neutrally applied for nonretaliatory reasons, even when terminated while receiving workers' compensation benefits.
In Bickers, the Court distinguished Coolidge by pointing out that Bickers was an at-will employee who had been terminated by her employer while receiving temporary total disability benefits whereas Coolidge had been a teacher terminated while receiving temporary total disability who claimed that an Ohio statute—R.C. 3319.1—prevented termination except in cases of "good and just cause." In a 5-2 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court found those different employment settings persuasive, and limited the Coolidge decision strictly to its facts. The Court held that in employment settings such as an at-will employment, or with an employment contract for a definite period, Coolidge was inapplicable.
What does this mean to Ohio employers? One of the more important implications is that the even-handed, neutral application of attendance policies should not result in liability for wrongful discharge. After Coolidge, many employers were wary of terminating anyone receiving temporary total disability for fear of a Coolidge claim. Now, outside of the teacher context, an employer may once again enforce neutral attendance policies and ultimately terminate employees receiving temporary total disability if terminating for nonretaliatory reasons in a manner consistent with the terms of the neutral attendance policy. Following Bickers, employees cannot proceed on the much broader Coolidge claim but must instead prove that the termination was in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. This can be difficult to do if the employer has a neutral attendance policy. It also means that employers who, in response to Coolidge, carved out special exceptions in their employment contracts, their employee handbooks, and their policy manuals, should review that documentation, as well as attendance polices, and consider modifications consistent with the Bickers holding.
This clarification in the law cannot be regarded as anything but favorable for employers. It allows employers much more freedom to treat all of their employee absences consistently. Additionally, the Bickers decision appears to clearly limit Coolidge claims to one specific and unique employment context : teachers whose employment is covered by R.C. 3319.16. The decision should prove helpful to employers seeking to control, as the Bickers Court wrote, the burden of "employees unable to perform the work for which they were hired and an inability to obtain permanent replacements."