May 19, 2019

Tenth Circuit: A Reasonable Jury Could Credit Plaintiff’s Version of Events, So Summary Judgment Inappropriate

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Foster v. Mountain Coal Co., LLC on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

Eugene Foster worked at Mountain Coal’s West Elk Mine in Colorado when he turned his head suddenly on February 5, 2008, and injured his neck. He sought treatment the following day at a local ER and received a return-to-work form from the ER doctor saying he could return on February 8. However, due to a previously scheduled hernia repair surgery, he did not return to work until March 31. Mountain Coal held a meeting with Foster on February 10 to discuss the injury where his managers rejected the ER doctor’s return to work form and instead told Foster that he needed to have a doctor complete Mountain Coal’s return to work form. Foster said he would try to have it completed during his hernia surgery.

Foster was unable to have a hospital doctor complete the Mountain Coal return to work form, so he dropped it off with his regular doctor. Foster testified in his deposition that sometime in early March, he delivered the form to the Mountain Coal offices, where he left it on the HR person’s desk. When she told Foster she did not receive the form, he obtained another form from his personal doctor and delivered it to Mountain Coal on March 18. Foster continued to receive care for his neck injury at Mountain Coal’s direction.

On March 31, Foster returned to work with a Mountain Coal return to work form completed by his hernia doctor. On April 3, the general manager of Mountain Coal held a meeting with Foster and an HR employee. During the meeting, the manager confronted Foster about not seeing his personal physician for the neck injury. Foster confirmed that he hadn’t seen his personal physician, and averred that he told the managers that but they continued to request that he have the personal physician complete the return to work form. Foster was supposed to have retraining the following day but requested at the April 3 meeting that it be rescheduled to accommodate his appointment with a doctor about scheduling surgery for his neck. Foster was suspended indefinitely during the meeting. According to his account, it was for not seeing the personal physician before receiving the return to work form. According to Mountain Coal, it was because Foster lied about delivering the earlier return to work form.

Foster saw the specialist on April 4, who opined that he would not recommend surgery because Foster’s work was aggravating the neck condition. On April 9, Foster saw his personal physician, who opined that Foster should not return to his regular work activities. Foster received a letter from his personal physician on April 11 memorializing the doctor’s conclusions that Foster was unable to return to work, and immediately called Mountain Coal to inform them of the letter. He spoke to his direct supervisor.

Two Mountain Coal managers testified that they had decided to terminate Foster on April 9 because he had lied about leaving a return to work form on the HR person’s desk, while a third testified that Foster had not provided a return to work form with the correct dates for his release “and stuff.” On April 14, Foster received a letter advising him of his termination. Although the letter was dated April 11, it stated that the termination was effective April 9. The letter advised that Foster was being terminated for false information regarding a return to work slip.

After Mountain Coal terminated his employment, Foster filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and Colorado Civil Rights Division. He received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, and filed a complaint in district court in December 2012, seeking relief under the ADA and Colorado law. The district court entered summary judgment for Mountain Coal, and Foster appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first concluded that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding whether Foster had proved his ADA retaliation claim. Foster claimed that his requests for accommodation on April 3 and April 11 were protected activity, and his termination was a retaliatory adverse employment action. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Foster’s claims of requests for accommodation and found them sufficient to apprise Mountain Coal of his needs. Although the district court held that Foster’s April 3 remarks were not sufficiently direct and specific to constitute a request for accommodation, the Tenth Circuit found that the remarks conveyed a need to meet with the doctor in order to schedule surgery, which was sufficiently specific to trigger accommodations. The Tenth Circuit noted that Foster’s deposition testimony could be clearer, but it was clear enough to survive summary judgment. The Tenth Circuit also found that Foster’s April 11 request was clear, and found Mountain Coal’s attempt to retroactively terminate Foster disingenuous. The Tenth Circuit noted the discrepancies between Mountain Coal’s stated reasons for suspending and terminating Foster, and found that the suspicious timing could lead a reasonable fact-finder to infer that Mountain Coal learned of Foster’s request for accommodation and terminated him because of it.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Mountain Coal.

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