Williams v. Tyson’s Food, Inc., et al.

Background:
Williams was fired from her post-injury employment with Tyson’s because of excessive late arrivals. Tyson’s argued that the employee was terminated due to her own fault and that pursuant to 39-A M.R.S.A. §214(1)(E), she was not entitled to wage loss benefits. Section 214 is derived from Michigan’s Section 418.301 which provides “If the employee . . . loses his or her job for whatever reason, the employee shall receive compensation based upon his or her wage at the original date of injury.” Mich. Comp. Laws §418.301(5)(e) (1999). [Emphasis added.] However, the Maine Legislature altered the language to provide “if the employee . . . loses the job through no fault of the employee, the employee is entitled to receive compensation based upon the employee’s wage at the original date of injury.” 39-A M.R.S.A. §214(1)(E) (2005). [Emphasis added.] The hearing officer, equating “fault” in the Workers’ Compensation Act with “misconduct” in the Employment Security Law, found that the employee did not lose her employment due to her own fault. As a result, the hearing officer did not reach the issue of whether Section 214(1)(E) prohibits wage loss benefits for employees who are fired due to fault. Tyson’s appealed. 

Court ruling: 
The Law Court upheld the decision of the hearing officer that the employee had not been fired due to her own fault. Apparently finding no significance in the Legislature’s change in language when adopting Section 214, the Law Court went on to say that there was nothing in the plain meaning or legislative history in that section that indicates an intent to prohibit workers’ compensation benefits when an employee is fired from post-injury employment for cause.

Although this decision severely limits this affirmative defense, it may not have eliminated it altogether. Left open is the question of whether an employee whose actions rise to the level of “misconduct” would be prohibited from receiving wage loss benefits pursuant to Section 214(1)(E). This decision is also likely to have an effect on another affirmative defense, namely refusal of suitable work. Rather than refusing suitable job offers, savvy employees will accept the offer then seek to be terminated. As long as their conduct does not rise to the level of “misconduct,” they will still be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

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