A recent Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals case analyzes claims brought under the FMLA and ADA. The case, Smothers v. Solvay Chemicals, Inc., issued on Tuesday, January 21, 2014, involved the claims Steven Smothers made against his employer Solvay Chemical, Inc. (“Solvay”). This case, like many employment discrimination cases, turned on the issue of pretext.
Smothers worked for Solvay for 18 years as a surface maintenance mechanic until Solvay fired him in 2008, ostensibly because of a first-time safety violation and a dispute with a coworker. Somthers 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”). The district court granted summary judgment for Solvay on his FMLA and ADA claims and the Tenth Circuit reversed.
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 openly complained about his FMLA-protected absences.
The Tenth Circuit analyzed both the ADA and FMLA claims under the McDonnell–Douglas burden shifting framework, that involves three steps: (1) the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation; (2) the defendant employer must offer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action; and (3) the plaintiff must show there is at least a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer’s proffered legitimate reason is genuine or pretextual. The Court 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 the light most favorable to Smothers’ claims, the Court found 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 and so the court reversed the grant of summary judgment to Solvay on the FMLA and ADA claims.
If your rights under the FMLA or the ADA have been violated, contact Denver Employment Attorney Gregory Hall: