Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Oregon Supreme Court
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In a workers’ compensation case, the issue presented for the Oregon Supreme Court's review centered on the scope of an employer’s obligation under ORS 656.262(7)(c) to reopen a closed claim for processing if a “condition is found compensable after claim closure.” The closed claim at issue here was claimant Randy Simi's accepted right rotator cuff tear, and the conditions giving rise to the dispute were supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendon tears, which claimant asked employer to accept as “new or omitted” conditions. Employer issued a denial specifying that the conditions were not compensable, but, without withdrawing the denial, employer later took the position that the tendon tears were “encompassed” within the originally accepted rotator cuff tear. That change of position caused an administrative law judge (ALJ) to determine that the tendon conditions were compensable and to set aside employer’s denial. According to claimant, that ALJ order triggered employer’s obligation under ORS 656.262(7)(c) to reopen the claim. Employer contended, however, that the legislature did not require reopening if the compensable condition at issue was “encompassed within” the already-accepted conditions, even if the employer also had denied that the condition was compensable. A majority of the Workers’ Compensation Board and a majority of the Court of Appeals panel agreed with employer, and the Supreme Court allowed review to consider this disputed question of statutory interpretation. Based on its examination of the statutory text and context, the Supreme Court concluded the legislature intended employers to reopen compensable claims for processing when a compensability denial was set aside after claim closure, including under the circumstances of this case. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals' decision was reversed. View "Simi v. LTI Inc. - Lynden Inc." on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit certified a question of law to the Oregon Supreme Court concerning whether a statutory damages cap applied to an award of noneconomic damages in an unlawful employment practice action. Plaintiff Max Zweizig filed suit in the federal district court in Oregon, alleging that corporate defendants had retaliated against him and that defendant Timothy Rote had aided and abetted the corporations in violation of Oregon statutes. The jury found for plaintiff and awarded him $1,000,000 in noneconomic damages. Over plaintiff’s objection, the district court entered a judgment for only half that amount after applying the non- economic damages cap set out in ORS 31.710(1). Defendant appealed, and plaintiff cross-appealed, challenging the reduction of the noneconomic damage award. The Supreme Court determined the damages cap in ORS 31.710(1) did not apply to an award of noneconomic damages for an unlawful employment practice claim under ORS 659A.030 in which the plaintiff did not seek damages that arose out of bodily injury and instead sought damages for emotional injury. View "Zweizig v. Rote" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kyle Walker persuaded a jury that her public employer had wrongfully discharged her from her at-will position for blowing the whistle on what she reasonably believed to be her employer’s violations of law. The trial court had denied her employer’s motions for a directed verdict, and the court entered a judgment that awarded her damages on that claim. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, notwithstanding the jury verdict in her favor, plaintiff’s action had not served an important public policy. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed, finding the appellate court incorrectly concluded that the threshold issue, whether plaintiff had identified an important public policy that permitted her to assert the tort of wrongful discharge, depended on whether she had reasonably believed that her employer had violated the law; instead, the Court found that threshold issue properly turned on sources of law that support the asserted public policy and whether those sources of law were tied to the acts by plaintiff that led her employer to discharge her. The Supreme Court further concluded that whether plaintiff had a reasonable belief that her employer had violated the law - the disputed element of whistleblowing on appeal - was a question of fact for the factfinder and that the record contained evidence that supported the jury’s finding. View "Walker v. Oregon Travel Information Council" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Oregon Supreme Court's review centered on whether ORS 652.200(2) and ORCP 54 E(3) could be construed in a way that “will give effect” to both, in the words of the Oregon Legislature’s longstanding requirement for construing statutes. Plaintiff was employed by defendant for several years. Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment, and, several months later, plaintiff filed the underlying action alleging defendant failed to pay wages that were due at termination. The case was assigned to mandatory court-annexed arbitration, and defendant made an offer of judgment under ORCP 54 E, which plaintiff rejected. The arbitrator ultimately found that defendant had failed to timely pay some of the wages that plaintiff claimed and that the failure was willful, entitling plaintiff to a statutory penalty. In addition, the arbitrator awarded plaintiff an attorney fee under ORS 652.200(2) and costs, but he applied ORCP 54 E(3) to limit those awards to fees and costs that plaintiff had incurred before defendant’s offer of judgment, because that offer of judgment exceeded the amount that plaintiff had ultimately recovered on his claims. Plaintiff filed exceptions to the arbitrator’s application of ORCP 54 E(3) to limit the award of fees and costs, but the award was affirmed by operation of law when the court failed to enter a decision within 20 days. In a divided en banc opinion, the Court of Appeals held that ORCP 54 E(3) could be applied to wage claims without negating the effect of ORS 652.200(2) and thus, both could be given effect. The Supreme Court concurred with the appellate dissent, finding that and need to limit the attorney fees of an employee who unreasonably rejects a good faith offer or tender could be addressed on a case-by-case basis under ORS 20.075(2), but the “reasonable” attorney fee required by ORS 652.200(2) could not be categorically limited through ORCP 54 E(3). Judgment was reversed and the matter returned to the circuit court for further proceedings. View "Mathis v. St. Helens Auto Center, Inc." on Justia Law

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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