An employee with a history of back problems took FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) leave several times due to his condition and was eventually fired. He sued his employers, alleging an FMLA violation and retaliation.
The man worked as a material handler at Exide Technologies. He predominantly operated a forklift, but his official job description required lifting batteries weighing up to 80 lbs. and various bodily movements including bending and twisting. His back problems predated his employment at Exide, and he took medical leave on three occurrences from the time he was hired in 2001 to the summer of 2006. Following leave for non-work-related back problems, a physician working for the company released the man back to work.
Just a few weeks later, the employee informed a company nurse that mandatory overtime was inciting back pain. He alleges that the nurse, in lieu of assisting him in completing a work injury report or workers compensation claim, told him to speak with a supervisor. He did and was okayed for additional FMLA leave. The company asked the man to receive medical clearance before returning to work. The supervisor also approved a form requesting FMLA leave, but the employee did not sign the form.
The man saw various doctors and underwent treatments for his back. None of these doctors released the man to return to work. The man informed Exide that one of his personal doctors lifted his work restriction, but the company physician would not release the man to work for his duties as a material handler. The company claimed that it could not find another position that would satisfy his restrictions and accordingly terminated his employment.
The man’s resulting lawsuit alleged retaliation under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act for reporting a work-related injury and violating the FMLA by retaliation, interference with his FMLA rights, and failing to restore him to his job. Exide made a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the termination was due to the company physician’s medical opinion that the man would be unable to safely perform his duties. The district court ruled in favor of the company.
On appeal, the former employee noted the doctors’ reports that he could perform the duties as required by his position. However, the appeals court sided with the district court’s opinion that it was more of a question of whether or not the company “honestly believed” that he could perform his job. The man further scrutinized the company physician’s medical opinion since he had not been examined at one of their last encounters. The court likewise negated this argument, as the doctor had examined the man more than once prior to that meeting and was also fully aware of his medical history.
Since the FMLA allows employers to terminate an employee if he/she is unable to return to work after exhausting the 12 weeks of available time, the court found that Exide was in compliance with the FMLA. Finding no support for the man’s claims of retaliation or an FMLA violation, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s decision.Former Exide Worker Fails to Prove Retaliation, FMLA Violation by Harrison Barnes