Willingness to Return to Work As Prerequisite to Termination Damages
The requirement that the employee be "willing and able" to return to work first appeared in 1996 in Gargis, 686 So. 2d at 273.
In so holding, the Court of Civil Appeals sought to conform the Alabama retaliatory-discharge statute to federal anti-discrimination statutes, most of which recognize an employee's willingness and ability to return to work as a prerequisite to a recovery of damages for termination.
Gargis, 686 So. 2d at 273, citing Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981) ("plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that she applied for an available position for which she was qualified ... under Title VII");
Southeastern Community College v. Davis, 442 U.S. 397, 406, 60 L. Ed. 2d 980, 99 S. Ct. 2361 (1979) ("An otherwise qualified person under the Rehabilitation Act is one who is able to meet all of a program's requirements in spite of his handicap.");
McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973) (plaintiff must show he applied and was an otherwise qualified handicapped person in order to prove a Title VII claim);
Pushkin v. Regents of the University of Colorado, 658 F.2d 1372, 1387 (10th Cir. 1981) (plaintiff must show that he was an otherwise qualified person, apart from his handicap);
and Parham v. Carrier Corp, 9 F.3d 383 (5th Cir. 1993) (court held that the plaintiff had failed to establish a "causal nexus" between his filing of a workers' compensation claim and his discharge by his employer -- based in part on the fact that the overwhelming evidence showed that he was physically unable to work).
The Court of Civil Appeals has consistently followed the "willing-and-able" doctrine announced in Gargis. See, e.g., Gordon v. J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc., 744 So. 2d 942 (Ala. Civ. App. 1999); Chapman v. Boise Cascade Corp., 726 So. 2d 729 (Ala. Civ. App. 1999); Hammock v. Ryder Dedicated Logistics, Inc., 716 So. 2d 215 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998); Alexander v. Pace Indus., Inc., 710 So. 2d 450 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997); Rice v. Bruno's, Inc., 705 So. 2d 486 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997); Watwood v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 699 So. 2d 210 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997); Lambert v. Beverly Enterprises, Inc., 695 So. 2d 44 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997).
Against the bare-bones framework of 25-5-11.1, creating a remedy for a retaliatory discharge, the courts of this state have been required to flesh out the elements of this relatively new cause of action.
One of the fundamental rules of statutory construction is that a court is to determine and give effect to the Legislature's intent in enacting a statute. Norfolk S. Ry. v. Johnson, 740 So. 2d 392 (Ala. 1999).
In construing acts of the Legislature, we ascertain its intent from the language used in the statute itself, if possible, as well as from the reason and necessity for the act and the goals the Legislature sought to accomplish. McGuire Oil Co. v. Mapco, Inc., 612 So. 2d 417 (Ala. 1992); Advertiser Co. v. Hobbie, 474 So. 2d 93 (Ala. 1985).
If the statute is ambiguous, then we "may consider conditions that might arise under the provisions of the statute and examine results that would flow from giving the language in question one particular meaning rather than another." Norfolk S. Ry., 740 So. 2d at 396. Section 25-5-11.1 prohibits an employee's discharge "solely because the employee has instituted or maintained an action" seeking workers' compensation benefits.
In Twilley, 536 So. 2d at 1364, this Court held that the term "solely," as used in the retaliatory-discharge statute, was intended to give the statute remedial effect. Because the statute is remedial legislation, we must construe 25-5-11.1 liberally in order to effectuate its beneficent purposes. Id.
Section 25-5-11.1 was signed into law by the Governor just four months after this Court had decided Meeks, wherein this Court declined to fashion a common-law remedy for retaliatory discharge.
Hence, we can presume that when the Legislature enacted 25-5-11.1, it was well aware of the existing law permitting an employer to discharge an at-will employee either with or without cause. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama, Inc. v. Nielsen, 714 So. 2d 293 (Ala. 1998);
Hamm v. Harrigan, 278 Ala. 372, 178 So. 2d 529, reh'g stricken, 278 Ala. 521, 179 So. 2d 154 (1965), cert. denied, 382 U.S. 981, 86 S. Ct. 555, 15 L. Ed. 2d 471 (1966).
We must construe 25-5-11.1 in a manner that effectuates the obvious legislative intent to protect an employee from a retaliatory discharge based solely on the employee's filing a workers' compensation claim.
However, at the same time, we must refrain from construing 25-5-11.1 in a manner that revises the at-will doctrine beyond the extent necessary to accommodate the obvious legislative purpose.