Appeals Court: Workers' Comp Claim Not Cause of Firing

A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court's ruling in favor of Watertown, N.Y.-based Car-Freshener Corp., which was sued by a former employee who claims Car-Freshener fired her for filing a workers' compensation claim.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a published opinion, asserts that former Car-Freshener employee Lucille Melvin "fails to demonstrate any genuine issue of material fact to establish a causal connection between her filing a workers' compensation claim and her termination." The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa came to the same conclusion.

Melvin, who worked at Car-Freshener's DeWitt, Iowa, plant from 1996 to early 2003, filed a lawsuit against Car-Freshener in November 2004 alleging that Car-Freshener had violated Iowa law by firing her in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The district court granted summary judgment to Car-Freshener, and the federal appeals court affirmed that ruling.

U.S. Circuit Judge William Jay Riley, who wrote the opinion for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, notes that Iowa law requires Melvin to prove that her filing of a workers' compensation claim was the determinative factor in Car-Freshener's decision to fire her.

Riley then asserts that Car-Freshener's failure to find Melvin a job in an alternative-duty program for injured workers was due to a downturn in Car-Freshener's business that forced the company to lay off approximately 50 percent of its work force.

"Moroever, Melvin did not have any employment contract and was an at-will employee," Riley wrote.

"Work On the Staple Line or Be Laid Off"

Car-Freshener which manufactures "Little Trees" car air fresheners, among other products hired Melvin in 1996 at the company's DeWitt, Iowa facility, according to the appeals court opinion.

In November 2002, Car-Freshener laid off approximately half its work force because of sluggish business. Due to production demands and staff shortages resulting from the layoffs and vacations during the holiday season, Car-Freshener then re-assigned Melvin from her packer position to a position on the staple line.

Melvin informed two of her superiors that she had suffered a shoulder injury in 1998 while working on the staple line and had been restricted from that work. The appeals court notes that Car-Freshener had accommodated Melvin's restriction in January 1999 by transferring her to the packing department.

After Melvin mentioned her previous injury, one of Melvin's superiors told her changing job assignments was not an option and told her, in the words of Riley, "Melvin could work on the staple line or be laid off."

Layoff Led to Termination

Melvin agreed to work on the staple line, and soon reported to her immediate supervisor that she was experiencing shoulder pain. A physician who examined Melvin concluded Melvin should be restricted from working on the staple line but could continue to work as a packer.

Car-Freshener's DeWitt plant personnel manager sent Melvin home to avoid risking further injury with instructions to come back to work the next day but called Melvin later that day to tell her she was being temporarily laid off because there were no jobs available in the packing department.

Prior to Melvin's injury report and layoff, the appeals court notes three other laid-off employees were called back to work in the packing department.

Melvin never returned to work at Car-Freshener. Her status was changed from temporary layoff to workers' compensation and she received workers' comp benefits from Jan. 21, 2003, through March 10, 2003, at which point Car-Freshener placed her on 6-month temporary layoff.

On Sept. 10, 2003, Melvin's layoff became permanent the equivalent of a termination which company policy mandates after 6 months of being laid off.

While Melvin's main argument in her lawsuit is that the close timing of her termination and her filing of a workers' compensation claim point to a connection between the two, Riley explains that a previous 8th Circuit ruling pointed out that Iowa law does not view such timing as sufficient evidence in itself to prove an employer broke the law.

Dissenting Judge: Let a Jury Decide

U.S. Circuit Judge Donald Lay of the 8th Circuit disagrees with the appeals court majority's decision, asserting that Melvin provided enough evidence for the case to go to a jury trial.

He contends there are "inconsistencies" in Car-Freshener's explanations, such as the statement by one plant official that Melvin was laid off because there were no positions available in the packing department even though Car-Freshener re-hired three workers in the packing department just 1 week prior to Melvin's layoff.

Such inconsistencies, "coupled with the timing of Melvin's termination, are enough evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer Melvin was terminated because she qualified for workers' compensation benefits," according to Lay.

"Too many courts in this circuit, both district and appellate, are utilizing summary judgment [in lieu of jury trials] in cases where issues of fact remain," Lay wrote.

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