A Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that Dielectrics, a Massachusetts-based medical device manufacturer, illegally fired Ileana Bermudez after she collected workers’ compensation benefits and filed a lawsuit against the company.
The case, Ileana Bermudez vs. Dielectrics, Inc., came about after Career Group Staffing Services Inc., a temporary employment agency, hired Bermudez and placed her at Dielectrics’ Chicopee, Mass., manufacturing facility.
On July 26, 2013, Bermudez was injured when Kevin Ramos, an employee working at the facility, negligently operated a forklift, causing several large metal sheets to fall on her right foot.
Bermudez suffered a fracture to her right foot as a result, and she could not work for about eight weeks. She filed a workers’ compensation claim that named Career Group as her employer and collected benefits from its insurer for medical bills and lost wages.
She was able to return to work at the facility in September 2013, and in December 2013, she was hired as a full-time employee. In July 2015, she filed a third-party action for negligence and respondeat superior against Dielectrics and Ramos. Dielectrics then terminated Bermudez in a notice.
“It is important to Dielectrics that when we promote an employee to a supervisory position the employee has a belief in the [c]ompany and behave[s] with the [c]ompany’s best interests at heart. Our supervisors need to support Dielectrics in that way so that we can entrust them to spread those same values to their subordinates.
“When you sued Dielectrics after being compensated for your injury by workers’ compensation, we had little choice but to conclude that you don’t believe in the company and don’t have its best interests in mind,” the notice stated, as referenced in the Appeals Court opinion. “This adversely affects the department you’ve been entrusted to supervise and the company as a whole. As such, we have decided to terminate your employment effective immediately.”
As a result, Bermudez brought an action against Dielectrics for retaliatory termination. A first judge ruled that Dielectrics wasn’t an employer and couldn’t be sued for retaliation but allowed Bermudez 20 days to file an amended complaint for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Bermudez filed an amended complaint that added this public policy claim.
After Dielectrics moved to dismiss the amended complaint, however, Bermudez voluntarily dismissed her public policy claim and a second judge also dismissed her claim for retaliatory termination. Bermudez appealed, contending that the dismissal is erroneous because her third-party negligence claim is a right.
In his opinion regarding the appeal, Associate Justice James R. Lemire pointed to the Massachusetts workers’ compensation act, which “provides wage-loss protection to employees who are injured on the job and incur a loss of earning capacity from the injury.”
He stated in his opinion that prior to 1971, when an employee suffered from a work-related injury, she could choose either to file for benefits under the act or to file a third-party action for her injuries but could not do both. In 1971, a revised version of the act “abolished the necessity for an election between filing a workers’ compensation claim and an action against a negligent third party.”
In 1991, the act was amended again through the workers’ compensation reform act.
“The language in the first sentence of the 1971 statute, abolishing the need for an election between remedies, remained the same for the 1991 statute,” Lemire stated in his opinion. “At the time of Bermudez’s injury, an employee was entitled to pursue a third-party action against any person responsible for her injury after collecting benefits under the act.”
Although Dielectrics argued that the right to sue for personal injury cannot be afforded by the act because it was created by common law, the Massachusetts Appeals Court disagreed, finding that Massachusetts law prohibits an employer from retaliating against its employee for exercising a right afforded by the act.
In Lemire’s opinion, he stated that without the 1971 amendment, Bermudez likely would not be able to sue Dielectrics for her injury because she already collected workers’ compensation from Career Group.
“It would be unfair today to allow an employee to file both a workers’ compensation claim and a third-party action, yet only prevent the employer from terminating an employee for filing one claim but not the other,” Lemire continued in his opinion.
As a result, the Massachusetts Appeals Court concluded that Bermudez exercised a right afforded by the act when she filed her third-party action against Dielectrics, and her amended complaint sets forth sufficient facts that Dielectrics’ termination of her employment was in retaliation for the third-party negligence suit. The judgment to dismiss her amended complaint was therefore vacated.
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