NO ADVANCE NOTIFICATIONS REQUIREMENTS FOR EMPLOYEES SEEKING TREATMENT FOLLOWING WORKPLACE INJURY

On September 24, 2014 the Northern District of Illinois, in Stevenson v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., No. 13 C 138 (N.D. Illinois 2014, Judge John J. Tharp, Jr.), held that FedEx’s policy that employees notify the company prior to seeking medical treatment for a workplace injury interferes with the right of employees to seek medical treatment for those injuries. 

Under Illinois law, it is unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee for exercising a right guaranteed by the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305(“IWCA”).  See 820 ILCS 305/4(h) (prohibiting employers from interfering with an employee’s exercise of IWCA rights or from discharging employees because of the exercise of IWCA rights).

FedEx company policy required immediate reporting of workplace injuries whether they required only minor first aid or professional medical treatment.   FedEx policy also required employees who wanted to seek professional medical treatment for a workplace injury to first attempt to provide advance notice to management. Under the policy, failure to provide notification to management before seeking professional medical care could subject the employee to termination.

Stevenson reported to supervisors that he was suffering from a sore back.  FedEx generated an injury report and placed Stevenson on light duty to accommodate. He did not request or seek medical treatment immediately at that time.  After working light duty on January 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12, Stevenson sought medical treatment for his back on January 13.  The physician’s assistant provided him with a “Certificate to Return to Work,” which stated: “Please keep patient on light duty/off truck work until he can have a functional capacity eval done with physical therapy to see exactly what his limitations are.” Stevenson began his next shift.  At the end of that shift, he presented the note from the physician’s assistant, notifying FedEx that he had already sought and received medical care for the January 6 incident.   He was then terminated for violation of the company policy requiring advance notice before seeking medical treatment for a work place injury. 

Stevenson then filed suit, alleging that his termination constituted retaliation for exercising a right guaranteed by the IWCA. FedEx filed for summary judgment and Stevenson filed a cross motion seeking judgment on the pleadings.

For IWCA claims alleging retaliatory the “employee must prove (1) his status as an employee of the defendant; (2) his exercise of a right granted by IWCA, and (3) a causal relationship between his discharge and the exercise of that right.” Here, the parties agreed on the first and third elements but did not agree the actions were protected by the IWCA.  Stevenson’s argument rested on whether the IWCA prohibits employers from interfering with an “employee’s attempt to exercise rights provided in the statute.”

The court held that the IWCA does not contain any language to suggest that employers may impose “minor, or even de minimis, burdens on an employee’s right to seek medical treatment… the unqualified language of the statute states plainly that employers may not interfere “in any manner whatsoever” with an employee’s exercise of his rights.” See, also 820 ILCS 305/4(h).  The court further stated that “by requiring notification before an employee seeks medical treatment, the company policy acts as an obstacle to an employee’s ability to seek medical care ‘at any time.’” 820 ILCS 305/8(a).  Firing employees “who do not comply with additional restrictions runs afoul of the statutory provision forbidding the discharge of employees for exercising these rights.” See 820 ILCS 305/4(h).

This case is a good example of Illinois’ restrictions on employment practices of employers when they are deemed to infringe on employees’ rights under the many applicable employment law statutes in Illinois.  For more information on the IWCA or any other employment law related matters, please contact Dana Perminas at 312-334-3474 or dperminas@messerstrickler.com for more information.