Clients often ask me, “If I settle my workers’ compensation case, can I still sue my employer for wrongful termination?” My answer is almost always yes. But for one unfortunate employee in Louisiana, it appears settling their workers’ compensation case may have doomed their wrongful termination case.
A federal district court in Louisiana held that a worker who settled their workers’ compensation case with a release that released all claims arising from their work injury was deemed to have settled their wrongful termination case under various civil rights laws.
The Louisiana decision raised the ire of some employee-side attorneys. Workers’ compensation laws and civil rights laws provide different remedies for different harms. A Minnesota court recently used this fundamental tenet of law to hold that a disability discrimination claim under their state’s civil rights laws was not barred by the exclusive remedy provision of their state’s workers’ compensation act.
But as a practical matter, some employers like to settle all claims arising out of the employment relationship when they settle a workers’ compensation case. In these cases there is usually consideration, or seperate amounts, to settle the workers’ compensation claim and the employment law claim. Sometimes this can be advantageous for a client. I am not sure of how the release was structured in the Louisiana case, but here is how I structure so-called global releases. In short, you need two releases: one for the workers’ compensation claim and one for the wrongful termination case.
Settling the workers’ compensation case
I wrote earlier about the so-called exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation. In Nebraska, that exclusive remedy also means the workers’ compensation court has limited jurisdiction. Nebraska courts have stated repeatedly that the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court can not adjudicate employment law cases because they are a court of limited jurisdiction. Neb. Rev. Stat. §48-139 gives the court jurisdiction over workers’ compensation settlements. 48-139 also dictates the language of workers’ compensation settlements, states when settlements must be approved by the court and mandates the filing of settlement papers with the court. In short, if the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court does not have jurisdiction to hear a wrongful termination or discrimination case, any settlements in that court should not effect any wrongful termination case or discrimination case.
Settling the wrongful termination or discrimination case
A settlement agreement in a wrongful termination case is a different document. Usually there is no requirement that it be filed or approved by a court. These agreements are often synonymous with severance agreements and oftentimes included language required by the Older Workers’ Benefit Protection Act if the employee is over 40 years old.
Settlement agreements in employment cases usually also talk mention tax liability. Tax liability is usually not mentioned in a workers’ compensation settlement as workers’ compensation benefits are almost never taxed. But settlement proceeds in a wrongful termination or discrimination case are usually taxable and those agreements should include some discussion of tax liability.
Sometimes employers will want a resignation as a condition of paying a settlement to an injured employee. If the employee is still working, that provision can be a deal breaker. But for an employee who has been terminated the extra money for a wrongful termination claim can be beneficial. Settling all claims at once may also help an employee minimize taxes by apportioning the majority of the value of the severance or employmennt law settlement into the non-taxable workers’ compensation settlement.