Wednesday, 06 January 2016 12:14
By Jordan Crews
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a job applicant does not have a cause of action under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act against a prospective employer for failure to hire if the employer’s refusal was based on the fact that the applicant had filed, or was likely to file, a workers’ compensation claim against a previous employer.
The employee worked as a housekeeping aide at a hospital. In 2010, she was hurt on the job and began receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In January 2012, the hospital entered into a contract with a company whereby the company agreed to provide housekeeping services for the hospital. As part of the contract, the company agreed to interview the hospital’s current housekeeping employees and, at the company’s discretion, hire the employees to continue in their positions.
The employee sought to return to work in the housekeeping department. The hospital, in accordance with its contract with the company, referred her to the company for employment. The company denied the employee employment because she had received workers’ compensation from the hospital, and it was afraid that hiring the employee would be “a Workers’ Comp claim waiting to happen.” The employee sued the company in a federal district court in Tennessee, alleging it violated the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act by failing to hire her.
The issue before the Tennessee Supreme Court
As this issue had not been addressed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the federal district court referred the question to that court. Particularly, the district court posed the following: if a prospective employer refuses to hire a job applicant because that applicant had filed, or is likely to file, a workers’ compensation claim incurred while working for a previous employer, can that applicant maintain a cause of action under the Workers’ Compensation Act against the prospective employer for failure to hire?
At-Will Employment Doctrine and Retaliation
Tennessee follows the employment-at-will doctrine. Under this doctrine, either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship with or without cause. There is, however, an exception to this doctrine: an at-will employee may not be fired for taking an action encouraged by public policy. Filing a workers’ compensation claim is considered such an action. Thus, an employer may not lawfully discharge an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim. If it does, the employee may bring a claim for retaliatory discharge.
With the foregoing in mind, the court had to consider whether a job applicant may bring a retaliatory failure to hire action against a prospective employer. The court first pointed to the relevant Tennessee statute, which states, “No contract or agreement, written or implied, or rule, regulation or other device, shall in any manner operate to relieve any employer . . . of any obligation created by this chapter . . . .” An employer’s decision to fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim has been held to be unlawful. However, the court reasoned, that holding did not apply to the employee because the Workers’ Compensation Act only applies to employers and employees, and the employee was not an employee of the company. She was, instead, a mere applicant. As such, the company had no obligation to her under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The court concluded by holding that “a job applicant does not have a cause of action under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Act against a prospective employer for failure to hire if the prospective employer refused to hire the job applicant because that applicant had filed, or is likely to file, a workers’ compensation claim against a previous employer.”