October 15, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment for Employer Reversed on FMLA and ADA Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Smothers v. Solvay Chemicals, Inc. on Tuesday, January 21, 2014.

Steven Smothers worked for Solvay Chemical, Inc. (“Solvay”) for 18 years until Solvay fired him, ostensibly because of a first-time safety violation and a dispute with a coworker. He sued Solvay, claiming the company’s true motivations were retaliation for taking medical leave from work, in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and discrimination on the basis of his medical disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). He also brought a state law claim for breach of implied contract. The district court granted summary judgment for Solvay on his FMLA and ADA claims and on his state law claim for breach of implied contract.

Smothers sought and was granted FMLA leave from Solvay for intermittent absences caused by severe neck and back pain. Solvay considered him an excellent, reliable mechanic with strong job knowledge, but managers and coworkers complained about his FMLA-protected absences.

The Tenth Circuit held that Smothers met his prima facie burden on his FMLA and ADA claims and presented a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Solvay’s stated purpose for firing him was pretextual. After viewing the evidence in Smothers’ favor, it showed that: (1) Solvay treated Smothers differently from similarly situated employees who committed comparable safety violations; (2) Solvay’s investigation into Smothers’ quarrel with Mahaffey was inadequate; and (3) Solvay managers previously took negative action against Smothers because of his FMLA-protected absences. Together these grounds create a triable issue of fact as to whether Mr. Smothers’ FMLA leave was a substantial motivation in Solvay’s decision to fire him.

The court rejected Solvay’s argument that the group of decision makers who fired Smothers was different from groups that disciplined other employees. The court held that requiring absolute congruence of decision maker members “would too easily enable employers to evade liability for violation of federal employment laws. The district court erroneously rejected Mr. Smothers’ pretext argument by insisting that the composition of the decision maker groups be precisely the same in every relevant disciplinary decision. We disagree because there is more than enough overlap to conclude the employees identified here were similarly situated to Mr. Smothers.”

The court also rejected Solvay’s argument that evidence of previous negative comments and actions about Smother’s FMLA leave were irrelevant to support his FMLA claims as they did not qualify as adverse employment actions. These incidents were relevant to a pretext inquiry, even if they could not be used to directly support a retaliation claim.

The court reversed the grant of summary judgment to Solvay on the FMLA and ADA claims, and affirmed on the state law claim of breach of contract as Smothers failed to show how the decision to discharge him violated the terms of Solvay’s handbook.

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