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Salus v. Island Hospitality Florida Management, Inc.

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

January 15, 2020


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Sandra Perlman, Judge; L.T. Case No. CACE17006971.

          Lawrence J. McGuinness of MG Legal Group, P.A., Coconut Grove, for appellant.

          Kristen D. Perkins and Paige S. Newman of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Fort Lauderdale, for appellee.

          Levine, C.J.

         An employee appeals a final summary judgment entered in favor of the employer on the employee's claim of retaliatory discharge under section 440.205, Florida Statutes. In interpreting the statute, the trial court found no prima facie case of retaliation because the employer terminated the employee before the employee filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. We disagree with the trial court's interpretation that the employee did not attempt to claim compensation under the statute. Because a material issue of fact exists as to the employer's reason for discharge, summary judgment is not proper at this juncture. We therefore reverse.

         On March 24, 2017, the employee sustained an injury while performing workplace duties. The employee notified the employer of the injury the following day and later informed the employer he was having difficulty receiving follow-up treatment for his injuries. The employer fired the employee less than two weeks after the work-related injury.

         The parties' depositions set forth conflicting reasons for the discharge. The employer submitted depositions from three employees describing an incident in which the employee became angry and threatened a coworker, stating: "I'll take you outside and beat you with my bad arm." The employee stepped towards the coworker, but the manager stepped between them to defuse the situation. Two managers called the employee on the phone the following day. After the employee admitted to making the threat, the managers told the employee that he was being terminated because he threatened another employee with physical harm. The managers explained to the employee that the reason for termination had nothing to do with his injury or seeking workers' compensation benefits.

         During the employee's deposition, the employee denied threatening his coworker and denied admitting on the phone to the managers that he threatened the coworker. The employee claimed that the other employees were lying about the incident. He further testified that the managers did not give him a reason for terminating his employment.

         Following his termination, the employee filed a claim for retaliatory discharge under section 440.205. Subsequently, the employee filed a petition for workers' compensation benefits. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the employee could not establish a prima facie case of retaliation because his termination was not causally related to his workers' compensation claim. The employer pointed out that the employee's termination occurred before he had filed a petition for benefits. The employer further argued that they had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the employee.

         After a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, stating:

The undisputed summary judgment evidence before the Court was that [the employee] filed his Petition for Benefits after his termination by [the employer]. While [the employee] argues that he is nevertheless entitled to a presumption of retaliation based on the circumstantial evidence of temporal proximity between the filing of the Petition for Benefits and his termination, this Court finds he is not as Fla. Stat. § 440.205 requires a showing of a statutorily protected activity, an adverse employment action and a causal connection between the statutorily protected activity and the adverse employment action. Florida law is clear that solely suffering a workplace injury and informing the employer of the injury is not alone an attempt to file a claim or seek benefits under Florida's Workers' Compensation Act. Accordingly, as [the employee] has not asserted a prima facie case of retaliation pursuant to Fla. Stat. § 440.205, [the employer] is entitled to final summary judgment in its favor on [the employee's] Complaint.

         We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Frost v. Regions Bank, 15 So.3d 905, 906 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009). "Summary judgment cannot be granted unless the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and the admissions on file together with affidavits, if any, conclusively show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Hurchalla v. Homeowners Choice Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 44 Fla.L.Weekly D2527 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 16, 2019).

         Statutory construction is a question of law subject to de novo review. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc. v. ...

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