Following a trial in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, a jury recently awarded an employee $500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages after finding her employer illegally fired her over a medical disability. While the jury found that the employee did not actually have a physical condition that limited her ability to work when the employer decided to eliminate her position, it did find that her previous medical leave of absence was a substantial motivating reason for the employer’s decision to eliminate her position.
The employee had worked for the employer for approximately two years. During that time, according to the employer, the employee had very few conversations with her supervisors about any medical issues. The employee only mentioned that she had any sort of illness four times, at most, before she took a medical leave of absence. Each of those times involved only a brief reference to feeling sick and no further details that would put anyone on notice that she had anything more than just a passing illness.
First, the employee had a “women’s talk” with a supervisor “about [their] menses,” during which the employee stated that she was controlling her related pain “through medication.” The employee told her supervisor that her medication was working to lessen her pain symptoms.
A few months later, the employee told another superior that she was not feeling well and was going to take a few days of paid time off (“PTO”) but gave him no details of the source of her illness. At the same time, the employee also left a voicemail for another supervisor, stating that she was not feeling well and was taking a few days of PTO. The employee testified that upon returning from her PTO she had a conversation with her supervisor and she (the employee) “was just making hand signals” indicating she had a tumor in her uterus, but she did “not know if [her supervisor] understood it – because it was just in passing.”
Weeks later, during another conversation with a different supervisor, the employee commented that one of the reasons for an altercation with another co-worker was that she was “sick and in pain,” but she did not provide any other details to her supervisor. This conversation was the first time the employee ever mentioned that she was sick or in pain.
Throughout the next month, the employee’s supervisors continued to discuss a plan to eliminate the employee’s job position and began drafting a written business justification and written business case to eliminate the employee’s position. At the end of the month, the employee requested medical leave. The employer initially intended on notifying the employee of the elimination of her job position two weeks after that but decided to wait until after she returned from medical leave. Approximately five weeks after her request for medical leave, the employee returned to work. On that same day, the employee’s supervisor notified her of the elimination of her job.
A few months after her termination, the employee filed a Charge of Discrimination with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and also with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stating she experienced disability related discrimination and retaliation. A year after she filed her charge, the employee filed a lawsuit against the employer and added claims for age, gender/sex, and national origin discrimination.
The employee’s case went all the way to trial where the jury awarded her $500,000 in damages ($400,000 of which were punitive damages) after finding the employer illegally fired her over a medical disability. The jury awarded the employee punitive damages because it found that an officer, director or manager of the employer “engaged in malicious, oppressive or fraudulent conduct” towards her. However, the jury also found that at the time the employee was fired, the employer was not aware she had the condition.
Court of Appeals’ decision
Before the employee’s case went to trial, she had to take her case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because the case was previously dismissed by the trial court. The Appellate Court revived the case and ruled that the lower court was wrong to find that the employee had failed to provide sufficiently convincing evidence to produce a material question of fact. The appellate decision discussed an email between the employee’s supervisors the day after the employee informed her immediate supervisor of her need for a medical leave of absence. According to court records, the employee’s direct supervisor stated in the email that he wanted to “run an idea by [another supervisor] regarding [the employee].” The employer said the message referred to a conversation about a decision to fire the employee that had been made during an undocumented “water cooler” discussion weeks earlier. The email showed the “idea” of firing being presented for the first time.
The Appellate Court noted that the two sides “forcefully disagree about the import of [her supervisor’s] words” and that both “interpretations are plausible.” The Appellate Court ultimately stated, however, that the law does not require the employee to produce a “smoking gun” to pursue her case. “The email is subject to competing reasonable inferences, and so is a disputed factor,” so judgment as a matter of law was improper. The Appellate Court also found it convincing that previously the employer told the employee that she was fired for poor performance. Yet later, the employer tried to argue that the firing was related to a department restructuring. “A reasonable jury could conclude that [the employer’s] shifting rationales for the termination support an inference of pretext.” As such, the Appellate Court allowed the employee to have her day in court, and she ultimately won a significant amount.
While an employer is not directly prohibited from terminating an employee while she is on medical leave, the rationale for the termination must be unrelated to the underlying condition and related need for the medical leave. More often than not, the outcome of such cases turns on the underlying facts and circumstances, including the statements and actions, or inactions, of lower level or front-line supervisors. In the employment law arena, supervisors and managers are representatives and agents of the employer. When, as in this case, statements and actions are taken where more than one plausible interpretation of the intent or motivation underlying the employment action is presented, unfavorable results for the employer are more possible. Proactive oversight and involvement by personnel/HR professionals, along with appropriate upper management, can often help prevent the types of issues and the outcome in this case. Also, in particularly difficult situations, it is advisable to consult with experienced legal counsel to help map out and implement a course of action to achieve the employer’s objective and protect the employer’s best interests in an appropriate manner.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at email@example.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as
legal advice on specific situations or subjects.