Jerry Hall, who worked as an underground miner for Consol of Kentucky Inc., sued Consol after the company allegedly fired Hall for taking pictures of mining equipment to bolster co-worker Carter Martin's workers' compensation claim. Martin, who was injured in 2002, alleged that his injuries were the result of unsafe workplace conditions.
"Martin persuaded Hall to photograph some of the mining equipment and to provide those photographs to Martin," Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. wrote in the appeals court's Jan. 23 opinion. "During a hearing on Martin's claim, Martin revealed that Hall was the photographer. About a week later, Consol terminated Hall, allegedly for taking pictures."
Hall sued in a state court for wrongful discharge, outrage/intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of implied contract. The appeals court, in a Jan. 23 opinion that affirmed a district court ruling, dismissed Hall's case, saying Hall's lawsuit fell short of the standards required to prove his three claims.
Anti-Retaliation Laws Don't Apply
As for Hall's claim that he was wrongfully discharged, Judge Oliver points out that several Kentucky laws that protect workers from employer retaliation in certain situations such as when an employee files a workers' compensation claim or when a miner refuses to work in what he believes to be hazardous working conditions do not apply to Hall's lawsuit.
"A workers' compensation claimant has a right to conduct discovery and present evidence under 803 Ky. Admin. Regs 25:010, and one might argue from this that a worker has a right to be a witness without being subject to retaliation," Oliver wrote. "In this case, however, Hall never acted as a witness."
Oliver cited a 1985 Kentucky Supreme Court decision (Grzyb v. Evans) when he explained that for Hall to successfully prove that Consol wrongfully discharged him, Hall would have to show that he was fired for one of two reasons:
- Because he refused or failed to violate a law while on the job, or
- Because he exercised a right "conferred by well-established enactment."
"In Hall's case," Oliver wrote, "the district court found no well-established legislative enactment protecting an employee's right to collect evidence to support another employee's workers' compensation claim." The appeals court agreed.
Employee Handbook Does Not Create Implied Contract
To support Hall's claim that his termination constituted a breach of implied contract, Hall attached a page from Consol's employee handbook and alleged that it created an implied contract.
Oliver, however, pointed out in the appeals court's ruling that, "[i]n Kentucky, employees are at-will unless the employer clearly agrees otherwise."
Although the employee handbook details a number of actions employees should avoid in order to minimize their chances of being disciplined or fired, nothing in the handbook "demonstrates an intent to modify the at-will nature of Hall's employment."
"The document is merely a page of general requirements for Consol employees regarding timeliness, productivity and safety procedures," Oliver wrote.
The employee handbook which Consol attached, in its entirety, to its motion to dismiss Hall's lawsuit contains this disclaimer: "The language used in this handbook is neither intended nor should it be construed as creating contractual rights between the company and any of its employees."