Sunday, March 09, 2008

Court Of Appeals Decision Does Great Harm To Employee Rights In Indiana

The Indiana chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) recently brought to my attention a recent decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals which does great harm to the rights of employees in this state who believe their employer wrongfully terminated them from their employment. When an employee is terminated from his or her job, one of the first acts the employee takes is to file for unemployment benefits in most cases. Indiana law has always been understood to preclude any determination made in an unemployment decision from being used as evidence to prove or disprove a wrongful termination claim. A decision rendered late last year by Court of Appeals Judge Cale Bradford, however, turns that legal truism on its head.

The case in question is Uylaki v. Town of Griffin, No. 45A05-0706-CV-307 (2007). The plaintiff in this case worked as a truck driver for the Town of Griffin. Uylaki injured his back in an automobile accident. About three months later, he asked his supervisor for time off because he was having trouble weaning himself from prescription drug pain-killers he had been prescribed by his physician. The supervisor issued Uylaki a disciplinary action form, which advised him to provide proof that he had enrolled in a substance abuse program by a date certain or he would be terminated. Uylaki attempted to enroll in such a program but was denied admission until his physician had weaned him from the pain medications. Uylaki provided the denial notice by the appointed deadline rather than proof of admission to a substance abuse program. His supervisor promptly fired him. Uylaki applied for unemployment benefits, which were denied. He appealed the decision with the aid of an attorney but was still turned down for benefits.

That Uylaki was denied unemployment benefits is no surprise. What is surprising is Judge Bradford's ruling that the fully adjudicated unemployment claim precluded him from bringing a wrongful termination claim. Ulyaki's wrongful termination claim asserted he had been terminated by his employer because he exercised a statutory right or refused to violate the law, one of the bases Indiana courts permit an employee to bring an action for wrongful termination. Judge Bradford held that the unemployment hearing acted as an adjudication of his wrongful termination claim. He wrote in his opinion:

There is no dispute that Uylaki’s unemployment insurance claim was within the jurisdiction of the Department, that the Department was acting in a judicial (as opposed to rule-making) capacity when it denied his claim, and that the Board’s final disposition could have been appealed to this Court, even though it was not. In our view, this case turns on the question of whether both parties had a fair opportunity to litigate the issue of whether Uylaki was discharged for good cause . . .

We believe that Uylaki had a fair opportunity to fully litigate the issues, even if he may not have fully exploited that opportunity.

In my own handling of wrongful termination cases on behalf of clients, it is not uncommon for my employee client to have adjudicated an unemployment benefit claim on his or her own successfully before coming to me. It is typically the attorney for the defendant employer who will be the first to raise the issue of precluding the admission of any findings from the unemployment hearing in the civil case for wrongful termination. Indeed, this is what Indiana's unemployment law says. The pertinent statutory provisions read as follows:

“Any testimony or evidence submitted in due course before the board, the department, the review board, an administrative law judge, or any duly authorized representative of any of them shall be deemed a communication presumptively privileged with respect to any civil action except actions to enforce the provisions of this article.” I.C. 22-4-17-9

“Any finding of fact, judgment, conclusion, or final order made by a person with the authority to make findings of fact or law in an action or proceeding under this article is not conclusive or binding and shall not be used as evidence in a separate or subsequent action or proceeding between an individual and the individual's present or prior employer in an action or proceeding brought before an arbitrator, a court, or a judge of this state or the United States regardless of whether the prior action was between the same or related parties or involved the same facts.” I.C. 22-4-17-12(h)

The statutory law on this point could not be more clear. Yet the Court of Appeals decision doesn't even elude to the existence of these statutory provisions. Unfortunately, it does not appear the plaintiff in this case is going to appeal the decision, allowing this decision to stand. As a fellow employment lawyer described this case, it's an "abomination." "Now our clients should not file for unemployment for fear of being stopped from bringing a claim regarding their termination in court, but in so do they will be leaving themselves wide open to the defense that they failed to mitigate their damages," the attorney lamented. The attorney could not be more right. Indiana law for employees has just gone from bad to worse.


Anonymous said...

Can/will the decision be appealed beyond Bradford's court?

Anonymous said...

Several points:
1) Town of Griffith. You know
like Andy of Mayberry fame.

2) Two other Court of Appeals
Judges joined in with Bradford.

3) Not sure why, but why didn't
the worker's attorney pitch
the Federal Family & Medical
Leave Act, in the lawsuit?
Is there an exemption for
governmental organizations?
Did he have less than one year
on the job? I assume that
Griffith has at least 25

Anonymous said...

Oops. I just answered my own
questions by reading it more closely. He had over a year
on the job but Nov. 11, 2005
must have been the end of his
13 weeks unpaid leave under FMLA.

Anonymous said...

And this from the same judge who, on the Marion Superior bench, saw no problem adjudicating a case on City Council redistrict lines in 2003. When his brother was on the ballot for Council. Which was promptly overturned by the very Court of Appeals on which he now sits.

It's time for appealate judges in Indiana, including the Supremes, to be confirmed by the Senate. Mitch Daniels would likely have gotten Bradford through that process, but it would've made the process more open. And we'd know more about our judges. Now it's just an inside lawyers' game.

Cale Bradford in robes is a disgrace to the good judiciary everywhere.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Unfortunately, the decision says very little about the theory behind the wrongful termination case. You know what they say, anon 10:45. Bad cases make bad law. The decision could be appealed, but it's my understanding the plaintiff doesn't plan to appeal.

Anonymous said...

This ruling coming from a state that gives tax money to millionaires and billionaires. I am not surprised!

Anonymous said...

Cale Bradford in robes is a disgrace to the good judiciary everywhere.

Where is there a "good judiciary" anywhere in this country?

Anonymous said...

Indiana has always had a history of disliking it's workers and only taking care of business owners, so this is not a shock for anyone.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Cale Bradford was a strange appointment by Governor Daniels. Marilyn Moores was another one. Gov. Daniels does not score highly when it comes to appointments to the judicial or executive branch.

Anonymous said...

Actually while the decision in this case helps the employer, the decision could apply in other cases to help out employees.

Either way, it's the wrong decision. The judges and their clerks missed a statute that virtually everyone in private practice knows about.

Anonymous said...

1:04--I've known Marilyn and her sister for many years. And her late father. All were/are odd, but I interact regularly with the Juvy Court, and it's 1000% bettr under her than under Jim Payne.

I'm painfully aware that may not be saying a lot, but I thought it needed to be pointed out.

Anonymous said...

I too have known Marilyn and her sister for many years. Marilyn Moores may adminstratively better than Judge Payne, but she has the worst judicial temperment of possibly anyone ever appointed to the court. She is much sharper than her sister, Candy though.

As far as Candy, let's just say having her as a state representative was pretty embarassing. Lobbyist friends of mine would come back from committee hearings and tell me about the latest Candy (then) Morris stories. They were legendary. Let's just say she wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed.

Anonymous said...

4:21, I'm not saying you're wrong, but please specify your Judge Moores problems. "Judicial temperment" is a broad category.

I've worked with her court on a project for quite some time now. She is often sharp and short with lawyers who appear before her unprepared. But she is astonishingly cordial to caseworks, children and others, so far as I've seen.

And I doubt she'd raid the petty cash fund for a party for herself, as Payne did.

Night and day.

Anonymous said...

I recently became aware of this recent blog

Unknown said...

This case is tragic but is another consequence of our prescription drug epidemic. Somehow we have become convinced that we no longer have to confront our problems but simply take a pill to not handle the problem but hide the symptoms.

As the director of Novus Medical Detox, I daily see the ravages caused by prescription drug addiction created by doctors prescribing it to their patients and then the patients either continuing to obtain it or purchasing these drugs on the internet or the street. Probably the worst of these drugs is OxyContin--legal heroin.

Pain is real. I have had to deal with it much of my life first from polio and then from two surgeries. However, there are alternatives to painkillers and they must be tried first. Let's not treat the symptoms but the cause.

Prescription drug addiction is an epidemic and we must do everything we can to stop it before it overwhelms us. Education is a must. Detox and rehab are the only solutions for people who are addicted and have decided that they must change their lives.

Steve Hayes