A former employee of a Connecticut supermarket chain was recently awarded approximately $536,000 in a wrongful-termination suit filed after he was fired when he took time off for back surgery. A jury found the supermarket chain guilty of violating the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and a provision of the state Workers' Compensation Act when it denied the former employee's claim of a job-related injury, refused to allow light-duty accommodations after his surgery and thereafter terminated him for making such requests.
Originally employed as a deli clerk in 1999, the employee was hired as the company's information technology specialist after earning a degree from the University of Connecticut. He was the chain's sole IT employee and serviced computers at all of its store locations throughout the state. The job occasionally required heavy lifting to replace servers and move computer stations to set up or fix wire connections. The supermarket chain acknowledged that he was a good employee who consistently received positive performance evaluations and regular pay raises. The employee claimed he injured his back in November 2007 while on the job, although he did not request time off for surgery to address the injury until January 2009. It took five months for the company to respond to his request, at which time it advised that it did not believe the injury was job related. The company told the employee to switch his claim from a request for workers' compensation benefits to his own personal health insurance.
The employee refused to switch, filed a workers' compensation claim and took an unpaid leave of absence for the surgery under FMLA. He returned to work on a part-time basis in September, per his doctor's orders, although the company refused to grant his request for light-duty accommodations. Approximately two weeks later, he was terminated and offered a severance package if he agreed not to sue the company; he refused.
Although the employee’s personnel file states the reason for his termination was "lack of work," during the trial, the company's owner admitted that had the IT specialist not gone out on leave for back surgery, it never would have terminated him. Following a trial last year, a jury awarded the employee $103,000 in economic damages. More recently, a trial judge increased that amount by $433,000 in additional damages, interest and attorney fees.
This case highlights the importance of properly addressing FMLA requests and the potential consequences of taking retaliatory measures against employees who seek to take advantage of their rights under the law. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the recently appointed chief of its FMLA division have declared that employers can expect a renewed focus on FMLA enforcement. As mentioned in a recent blog post, on-site FMLA inspections are expected to be standard practice as a way for the DOL to measure how familiar employees are with an employer's FMLA policy. In particular, managers will be expected to know FMLA policies procedures inside and out, making training on the correct way to handle FMLA issues an essential step in avoiding liability.