by James D. Cockrum
The Kentucky Court of Appeals recently ruled that a 90-day statute of limitations, rather than a longer 5-year time limit, applied to an employee’s claim for wrongful discharge. Both statutes of limitations protect employees from being discharged based on their jury-related service.
“Marcella” worked for Humana, Inc. In January 2012, she received a notice requiring her to perform jury service. She informed her supervisors that she would be absent for “approximately” 2 weeks.
For 2 days of her jury service period, Marcella was “on call” for jury duty and wasn’t required to be at the courthouse. However, she didn’t report for work at Humana on either day. When Humana learned of those circumstances, it terminated her.
Two years later, Marcella sued Humana, claiming her former employer fired her for missing work to perform jury service in violation of Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 337.415. That statute states, “[No] employer shall discharge an employee for taking time off, as required by law, to appear in any duly constituted local, state or federal court.”
KRS 337.415 doesn’t expressly contain a statute of limitations (i.e., a time limit within which an employee must file a lawsuit to claim a violation). Thus, claims filed under the statute are subject to the 5-year time limit applied under KRS 413.120 to any lawsuit based on “a liability created by statute, when no other time is fixed by the statute creating the liability.”
Humana asked the trial court to dismiss Marcella’s lawsuit. According to the employer, a different statute—KRS 29A.160—governed Marcella’s claims. KRS 29A.160 states that “[an] employer shall not deprive an employee of his employment, or threaten or coerce him with respect thereto, because the employee receives a summons, responds thereto, serves as a juror, or attends court for prospective jury service.” An employee who believes the law has been violated is expressly required to file a lawsuit within 90 days.
The trial court agreed with Humana and dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Marcella hadn’t filed her claim within the time limit permitted by law. Marcella appealed.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed with Humana and upheld the dismissal of Marcella’s lawsuit. In reaching that decision, the court applied well-settled rules of “statutory construction,” which aid courts in resolving conflicts between laws. The applicable rule provides that a “more specific statute controls over the more general statute.”
Although both statutes cited in this case generally address the employment rights of employees who are absent from work for court-related matters, only KRS 29A.160 specifically addresses “jury duty.” KRS 337.415 addresses the more general topic of “taking time off . . . to appear in any duly constituted local, state or federal court.”
In addition, Kentucky law provides that a “specific statute of limitation[s] preempts a general statute of limitation[s] where there is a conflict.” Hardin v. Humana, Inc., No. 2014-CA-001321-MR (November 23, 2016).
Long statutes of limitations are harmful to employers. If a 5-year time limit applies, there’s almost certainly going to be turnover in the workforce that may deprive the parties and the courts of access to more witnesses and sharper memories. It shouldn’t take 5 years for an employee to decide she was wrongfully discharged.
Moreover, in a broader sense, this case demonstrates that employers can have multiple defenses to claims. Although Humana certainly would have argued that Marcella’s termination was legally based on her violation of work rules, it avoided having to make that disputed argument. The “best defense” turned out to be its counsel’s knowledge of technical legal rules.