Black Creek , Inc. v. Woods
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the Etowah County Circuit Court’s ruling in a retaliatory discharge lawsuit with no opinion in Black Creek Inc v. Wood. The Trial Court awarded $50,000.00 to the employee based on his discharge being deemed solely the result of his filing a workers’ compensation claim. $30,000.00 of the award was allocated for mental anguish and $20,000.00 was for lost wages. Judge Moore concurred in the result, with writing.
In support of the mental anguish award, Judge Moore pointed to the plaintiff’s testimony that he suffered serious financial problems, sought psychiatric care, obtained medication for depression and suffered marital strife leading to a divorce. Judge Moore cited Montgomery Coca-Cola Bottling Co. V. Golson as support that the plaintiff’s testimony provided sufficient evidence that he suffered from mental anguish as a result of his termination.
In regards to the lost wages award, the employer argued that, by receiving Social Security Disability benefits, the employee was estopped from asserting that he was able to work. The employer cited the case of Bleir v. Wellington Sears Co. which held that if an employee is discharged as the result of a workers’ compensation claim but is unable to return to work, he cannot recover lost wages. The employer acknowledged that it did not affirmatively plead estoppel as a defense and that, if not plead, the defense would be waived. However, it alleged that the pleadings should be amended pursuant to Rule 15 (b) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure to conform to the evidence presented at trial. The employer argued that the Social Security Disability evidence would be relevant toward proving the defense of estoppel and it was tried without objection at trial. Judge Moore stated that this evidence also went to prove whether or not any lost wages should be offset by the Social Security Disability award. Therefore, because the employee would not have known that he was trying the estoppel issue, Rule 15 (b)@was not triggered.
Judge Moore also stated that the lost wages were from the date of termination until the plant closed in late 2001 or early 2002 and the Social Security Disability did not begin until October 2003, which would date it back to October 2002 pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 423 (b) and 20 C.F.R. § 404.621. Although it is true that the employee cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits for lost wages due to an inability to work and compensatory damages for lost wages in a retaliatory discharge claim, the burden is on the employer to prove overlapping compensation. In this case, the employer did not present any evidence as to what portion of the $20,000.00 lost wages award, if any, was related to the period that the employee received Social Security Disability benefits. Therefore, no evidence was presented to support estoppel or an off set of the lost wages award.
MY TWO CENTS:The affirmative defense of Estoppel should always be plead in all retaliatory discharge claims where lost wages are claimed and the employee has received workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability benefits.