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Court gives new life to workers' compensation retaliation claim of injured forklift operator.
A fired Ford Motor Company employee can proceed to trial on his workers' compensation retaliation claim based on Ford's alleged efforts to avoid liability for his injury and its doctor's skepticism over his claim, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Ford Motor Company hired James Baptist as a forklift operator at its assembly plant in Chicago in February 2012. In April, less than three months into the job, Baptist injured his left wrist by inadvertently driving a forklift into a pillar. Baptist visited Ford's medical department and submitted an injury report. Baptist's injury report triggered Ford's workers' compensation review, and Jessica Nawracaj, a benefits administrator, investigated his claim for coverage. Nawracaj and Ford's physician, Dr. Patricia Lewis, doubted Baptist's account of his injury because of how Baptist reported the incident and his refusal to release medical records from a prior workers' compensation case in which he injured his other wrist. Nawracaj and Lewis discussed forwarding the information from their investigation to Ford's labor relations department. Ford's workers' compensation fund paid for Baptist's initial visit to a doctor, Dr. William Heller, an orthopedic surgeon, who ordered an MRI, diagnosed Baptist with a ligament tear in his left wrist and issued Baptist a wrist brace. Ford denied further coverage, and Baptist's workers' compensation claim is pending before the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission. Baptist worked consistently for the next two months until June 24, 2012, when he left work early to seek additional medical attention for increased wrist pain. Baptist saw Heller, who diagnosed him with a complete ligament tear in his left wrist and recommended surgery. Heller submitted a form to Ford opining that Baptist could not perform the essential function of his job, though Baptist was not totally unable to perform his job. When Ford asked for additional information, Heller submitted a form that recommended that Baptist be off work for four to six weeks after surgery, but cleared him to return to work on July 2 as long as he did not lift or grip over five pounds with his left hand.Lewis reviewed these forms and decided that the restriction did not affect the ability to operate a forklift, removed the note from Baptist's file and cleared him to work. Baptist, however, believed that his injury and medical restriction prevented him from operating a forklift, refused to resume his work and asked for another position. Ford refused and suspended Baptist for one month on July 23. When Baptist returned from his suspension on Aug. 24, he met with Lewis and Ford's labor representative, Quandra Speights. Baptist was told that the only available work was as a forklift driver and was instructed to return to that position. Baptist claimed that Speights said that Ford would fire him unless he agreed to state that his injury did not happen at work, in which case he would be given an approved leave of absence. Speights denied this assertion. Baptist told Lewis and Speights that he could not perform the forklift job and feared that it would worsen his injury. After Baptist did not return to his position on Aug. 24, 25 or 26, he was discharged by Speights for having three consecutive absences without justification, which is a dischargeable offense under Ford's collective bargaining agreement.Baptist sued Ford in Illinois state court, asserting that Ford discharged him in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act. Ford removed the case to federal district court and moved for summary judgment, arguing that Baptist had been discharged because of his unexcused absences. The district court agreed and dismissed the case based on Ford's records of Baptist's attendance and Baptist's failure to contest this reason for his discharge.On appeal, Baptist argued that he raised triable issues about the extent of his injury and Speights' alleged attempt to coerce him into abandoning his workers' compensation claim. The 11th Circuit agreed and reversed the trial court's decision because of the conflicting evidence about Ford's primary reason for firing Baptist. Although he was fired because of his attendance record, his absenteeism related to the disagreement about whether he was physically able to drive a forklift. Speights relied on Lewis' conclusion that Baptist could drive a forklift, and Lewis' e-mail exchanges with Nawracaj suggest that she was hostile to Baptist's exercise of his workers' compensation rights. In addition, a triable issue existed regarding whether Speights forced Baptist to choose between keeping his job or giving up his right to workers' compensation coverage. Baptist v. Ford Motor Co., No. 15-2913, 11th Cir. (June 27, 2016).Professional Pointer: Employers should evaluate an injured employee's request for leave and other accommodations separate and apart from considerations of the legitimacy of the employee's workers' compensation claim. Otherwise, a court could find that the employer's decision was retaliatory because it was influenced by skepticism concerning the employee's claim.Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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