The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a job applicant does not have a claim against a prospective employer when the employer fails to hire the person because she previously filed a workers’ compensation claim.
Beginning in 1998, Kighwaunda Yardley worked as a housekeeping aide at the University Medical Center in Lebanon. In 2010, Ms. Yardley was injured on the job and began receiving workers’ compensation benefits. She performed light-duty work at the hospital and planned to return to her housekeeping position when released by her doctor to full-duty work.
In 2012, the University Medical Center contracted with Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC to perform the hospital’s cleaning services. The housekeeping company agreed to interview the hospital’s current housekeeping employees and had the option of hiring any of the employees to continue in their positions. However, Ms. Yardley was not interviewed or hired by Hospital Housekeeping Systems, as she was on light duty and not working in the housekeeping department at that time.
In August 2012, when Ms. Yardley was released by her doctor to perform full-duty work, she applied for work with Hospital Housekeeping Systems. However, she was not hired, at least in part, due to the fact that she had previously filed a workers’ compensation claim while employed by the hospital.
Ms. Yardley sued Hospital Housekeeping Systems in federal district court, raising a number of claims, including that the housekeeping company’s failure to hire her because she had filed a previous workers’ compensation claim gave rise to a cause of action for retaliatory failure to hire. Ms. Yardley acknowledged that this cause of action had not previously been recognized in Tennessee.
The federal district court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to consider whether there should be a cause of action for retaliatory failure to hire in Tennessee and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Federal courts certify questions to state supreme courts when a federal court is ruling on a case that involves an issue of unsettled state law.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Supreme Court declined to recognize a cause of action for retaliatory failure to hire. The Court explained that although some states allow for this type of lawsuit, Tennessee is an employment-at-will state and the Tennessee Legislature has not created this cause of action. The Court was unwilling to recognize a failure-to-hire claim as a judicially crafted exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.
The Court disagreed with Ms. Yardley’s assertion that an employer’s failure to hire a job applicant on the basis that the person filed a previous workers’ compensation claim is akin to a retaliatory discharge, which is a recognized cause of action in Tennessee. The Court explained that while an at-will employee may not be fired for taking an action encouraged by public policy, such as filing a workers’ compensation claim, there is a fundamental difference between discharging an employee and refusing to hire a job applicant.
As the Court noted, the basis of liability under the workers’ compensation laws is the employer-employee relationship. However, Ms. Yardley’s relationship to Hospital Housekeeping Systems was not that of employer-employee, but of job applicant and prospective employer. Thus, under Tennessee’s workers’ compensation laws, Ms. Yardley has no cause of action against Hospital Housekeeping Systems.
To read the unanimous opinion in Kighwaunda M. Yardley v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, authored by Chief Justice Lee, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.