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Tenth Circuit Reinstates Chemical Worker's Disability and Family Medical Leave Act Retaliation Claims

ABSTRACT: Plaintiff furnished sufficient evidence to show that the employer's claim that he was fired for safety violations was a pretext for discrimination.

Plaintiff Steven Smothers was an 18-year employee of Solvay chemicals, who worked as a surface maintenance mechanic in Defendant Solvay Chemicals’ trona mine in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. Smothers suffered a neck injury in 1994, and developed degenerative disk disease in his spine.  This caused him significant pain, loss of sleep, and periodic absences from work, caused by his condition, for which he was granted FMLA leave.

In 2008, with no prior incidents of workplace safety violations on his record, Plaintiff was found to have violated the company’s safety rules by failing to properly follow company “line break” remediation procedures, in connection with a hydrochloric acid leak. In the course of attempts to stop the leak, Plaintiff and a co-worker argued about the proper procedures to be followed.

Smothers was terminated for failing to comply with company safety policies. He sued in federal court, claiming retaliation for his having taken medical leave from work, in violation of the FMLA; discrimination on the basis of his medical disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and breach of implied contract, under state law.  The federal district court granted summary judgment on all counts. The Tenth Circuit reversed, and reinstated Plaintiff’s FMLA and ADA claims.

Applying the Mc Donnell Douglas factors for analyzing employment-related claims based on circumstantial evidence, the court found sufficient evidence that Solvay’s articulated reason for Smothers’ termination was a pretext for discrimination, to avoid summary judgment on the federal law claims. In particular, the court cited evidence showing that other employees who were not disabled and had not taken FMLA leave were not terminated for similar safety violations; that Defendant did not adequately investigate the dispute between Plaintiff and his co-worker about the proper procedures to follow; and that Plaintiff’s superiors had previously given him a negative performance rating and denied him a promotion because of his FMLA-protected absences.

Smothers v. Solvay Chemicals, Inc., - F.3d – (no. 12-8013, decided January 21, 2014)

Available at: http://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/12/12-8013.pdf