Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Oregon Supreme Court
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Plaintiff Gene Summerfield, worked for defendant Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), in its warehouse. In his complaint plaintiff alleged that he and other African-Americans had been subjected to racial discrimination and racial harassment at the warehouse. Plaintiff also alleged that he had repeatedly told defendant about the discrimination and harassment, but defendant had failed to take effective corrective action. Plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim for acute stress. The claim was accepted, and plaintiff received treatment. Plaintiff’s treatment provider eventually released plaintiff to return to work, and plaintiff requested reemployment. The jury rejected plaintiff’s first claim; on the verdict form, it answered the questions finding that defendant had not “intentionally discriminate[d] against plaintiff because of his race” and had not “subject[ed] plaintiff to a racially hostile work environment by his co-workers.” The jury also rejected plaintiff’s retaliation claim, finding that defendant had not “retaliate[d] against [plaintiff] for opposing or reporting racial dis- crimination or racial harassment.” But the jury accepted plaintiff’s whistleblowing claim, finding that defendant had “take[n] adverse enforcement [sic] action against plaintiff because he in good faith reported information that he believed was a violation of a law, rule or other regulation.” Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Oregon Supreme Court determined the trial court did not err in granting defendant a directed verdict on plaintiff’s reemployment claim; plaintiff bore the burden of proving that defendant had available and suitable employment for him and plaintiff conceded that he had not done so. The Supreme Court also concluded that, although the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the meaning of “adverse employment action” for the purposes of plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the error was harmless because there was no dispute that the actions plaintiff relied on to support his retaliation claim were adverse employment actions and the jury actually found that defendant had committed an adverse employment action. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff has not established that, under the circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion in declining to award plaintiff equitable relief. View "Summerfield v. OLCC" on Justia Law

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The Oregon legislature made various changes to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) by enacting amendments set out in SB 1049, Or Laws 2019, ch 355. Petitioners were PERS members challenging two of those amendments: (1) the redirection of a member's PERS contributions from the member’s individual account program to a newly created employee pension stability account, used to help fund the defined-benefit component of the member’s retirement plan; and (2) a cap on the salary used to calculate a member's benefits. Petitioners primarily argued the amendments impaired their contractual rights and therefore violated the state Contract Clause, Article I, section 21, of the Oregon Constitution. Respondents were the state, the Public Employees Retirement Board (the board), and various state and local public employers. The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with petitioners' contentions, finding challenged amendments did not operate retrospectively to decrease the retirement benefits attributable to work that the member performed before the effective date of the amendments. And, although the amendments operated prospectively to change the offer for future retirement benefits, the preamendment statutes did not include a promise that the retirement benefits would not be changed prospectively. The Supreme Court resolved petitioners’ other claims on similar grounds and denied their requests for relief. View "James v. Oregon" on Justia Law

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After claimant Danny Arvidson received an award of permanent total disability, insurer Liberty Northwest Insurance Corporation requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) to review the award. The ALJ dismissed insurer’s hearing request as time-barred. The question on review before the Oregon Supreme Court was whether that dismissal entitled claimant to attorney fees under ORS 656.382(2), which provided that, if an insurer initiates review of a compensation award and the reviewing body “finds that ... all or part of the compensation awarded ... should not be reduced or disallowed,” the insurer shall pay the claimant’s attorney a “reasonable attorney fee.” The ALJ determined that the statute applied to the dismissal of insurer’s claim and awarded fees to claimant. The Workers’ Compensation Board reached a different conclusion and reversed that decision. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed, finding the ALJ correctly determined that his dismissal of insurer’s request for hearing entitled claimant to attorney fees. The board erred in concluding otherwise. View "Arvidson v. Liberty Northwest Ins. Corp." on Justia Law

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The original plaintiffs in this action were nine Oregon counties that sought declaratory relief, alleging that the Oregon paid sick leave law required them to spend money on a program without sufficient state reimbursement, as required by Article XI, section 15 of the state Constitution, and that they consequently were not required to comply with that statute. Defendants, the governor and the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, responded that the constitutional provision did not apply to the paid sick leave law because that law was not a “program” within the meaning of Article XI, section 15(1), and, additionally, that not all nine plaintiff counties met the cost threshold required to make Article XI, section 15(3), applicable to them. The Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the paid sick leave law did not require local governments to implement a “program” under that provision and, therefore, that the counties were not exempt from that statute. View "Linn County v. Brown" on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from plaintiff Rich Jones’ civil action to recover unpaid wages that defendant Four Corners Rod & Gun Club unlawfully withheld after the parties agreed to trade a lodging benefit for labor. Although Oregon’s wage laws authorized employers to deduct from an employee’s wages “the fair market value of lodging, meals or other facilities or services furnished by the employer for the private benefit of the employee,” those laws also prohibited employers from taking any deduction from wages unless the employer obtains the employee’s advance written authorization and keeps a record of the deductions. Defendant admittedly failed to comply with the requirements for deducting the lodging benefit from plaintiff’s wages. The issue this case presented for the Oregon Supreme Court’s review was whether defendant’s violation of ORS 652.610(3) prevented defendant from asserting an equitable claim for the value of the lodging benefit, either as an affirmative defense to plaintiff’s wage claim or as a lawful counterclaim. The Supreme Court concluded that defendant’s unlawful withholding of wages prevented it from asserting the value of the lodging benefit as an affirmative defense to defeat plaintiff’s wage claim, but did not prevent defendant from asserting an equitable counterclaim for the value of the lodging benefit. View "Jones v. Four Corners Rod & Gun Club" on Justia Law

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The dispute in this workers’ compensation case arises out of a question relating to overlapping statutory provisions that control the determination of permanent partial disability. ORS 656.214 obligated employers to provide compensation for a worker’s permanent impairment, meaning “loss of use or function” that is “due to the compensable industrial injury.” But ORS 656.005(7)(a)(B) limited the employer’s liability when the compensable injury combines with a qualifying “preexisting condition” to “cause or prolong” the injured worker’s’ disability or need for medical treatment, unless the compensable injury is the “major contributing cause” of the “combined condition.” The question presented for the Oregon Supreme Court's review centered on whether the legislature intended an employer would obtain the same limited liability when the employer did not follow the process that the legislature created for estimating a reduced amount of permanent impairment following the denial of a “combined condition.” The Supreme Court concluded the legislature intended that injured workers would be fully compensated for new impairment if it was due in material part to the compensable injury, except where an employer has made use of the statutory process for reducing liability after issuing a combined condition denial. View "Caren v. Providence Health System Oregon" on Justia Law

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Claimant Mark Pilling filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits which insurer Travelers Insurance denied. An administrative law judge (ALJ) reversed insurer’s denial, but the Workers’ Compensation Board reversed the ALJ’s order and reinstated insurer’s denial on the ground that claimant was a nonsubject worker because he was a partner in the business for which he worked and he had not applied for coverage as a nonsubject worker. The Court of Appeals affirmed the board’s order. On claimant’s petition, the Oregon Supreme Court granted certiorari review and concluded that, even assuming claimant was a nonsubject worker, he was entitled to coverage because the business for which he worked made a specific written application for workers’ compensation coverage for him, which insurer accepted. Therefore, the Court reversed the decisions of the Court of Appeals and the Workers’ Compensation Board and remanded to the board for further proceedings. View "Pilling v. Travelers Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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After being terminated by defendant Nike, Inc., plaintiff Douglas Ossanna sued his former employer. Plaintiff alleged, among other things, that Nike had unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his safety complaints and for whistleblowing. Based on his theory that his supervisors held a retaliatory bias against him, plaintiff requested a “cat’s paw” jury instruction informing the jury that, in considering his claims, it could impute a subordinate supervisor’s biased retaliatory motive to Nike’s formal decision-maker, an upper manager with firing authority, if the biased subordinate supervisor influenced, affected, or was involved in the decision to fire plaintiff. The trial court declined to give the instruction, and the jury returned a verdict for Nike. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court’s refusal to give the requested “cat’s paw” instruction was an instructional error that prejudiced plaintiff. The Oregon Supreme Court held the “cat’s paw” doctrine was a viable theory in Oregon. For an employer to be liable, however, a plaintiff relying on the imputed-bias theory also must establish a causal connection between the supervisor’s bias and the adverse employment action; the causation requirement for the claim at issue controls the degree of causation required to impose liability. The Court also concluded the trial court erred in declining to give plaintiff’s “cat’s paw” jury instruction, because the instruction was a correct and applicable statement of the law, and that the instructional error prejudiced plaintiff. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, reversed the trial court as to plaintiff’s retaliation claims, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Ossanna v. Nike, Inc." on Justia Law

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Initially, respondent John Wigle worked for petitioner Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) as a temporary worker through a temporary staffing agency. EWEB later hired Wigle as a regular employee. When Wigle retired from EWEB, a disputed ensued over when Wigle had become eligible for retirement benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System. The Public Employees Retirement Board concluded that even though Wigle worked through the temp agency, he was eligible for retirement benefits because he had worked for EWEB for six months. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Board’s order, rejecting EWEB’s contention that Wigle only because eligible for benefits once he became an regular employee. The Oregon Supreme Court determined the Oregon Legislature did not intend for employees who was placed on the government’s payroll would be eligible for benefits, “not someone who, in hindsight, was determined to have a common-law employment relationship with the public employer.” The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s order and remanded to the Board for further proceedings. View "Eugene Water and Electric Board v. PERB" on Justia Law

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Claimant Elvia Garcia-Solis was injured in a work-related accident. Farmers Insurance Company and Yeaun Corporation (collectively, “Insurer”) accepted a workers’ compensation claim and certain specified medical conditions associated with the accident. Because claimant also showed psychological symptoms, her doctor recommended a psychological referral to diagnose her for possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Insurer argued, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that the cost of the psychological referral was not covered by workers’ compensation because claimant had failed to prove that it was related to any of the medical conditions that insurer had accepted. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed both the Court of Appeals and the Workers’ Compensation Board: “’injury’ means work accident is context-specific to exactly two uses in the first and second sentences of ORS 656.245(1)(a). It does not apply to the second use in the first sentence of ORS 656.245(1)(a). We do not decide or suggest that it applies to any other statute in the workers’ compensation system.” View "Garcia-Solis v. Farmers Ins. Co." on Justia Law