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Appellate court reinstates former Chevron worker's FMLA claim

A divorce and child custody issue caused a man a great deal of stress in 2008 and 2009. The man worked for Chevron, and after losing some focus at work, he sought to take medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to address his stress. He had learned that the FMLA covers life changing family issues. And when his wife moved out of state with his 5-year-old son, he thought about taking the leave.

He did not move quickly. He was worried about an upcoming audit at the lab where he worked and knew that it would be busy. He also knew that a co-worker would be taking maternity leave in the fall of 2009, causing a further shortage at the lab. In February 2009, the man was granted custody of his child for a six month period. The child was having difficulties adjusting to the new arrangement and the worker says that he set up a meeting with a supervisor to discuss FMLA leave.

Disputes about potential meetings and cancellations of meetings arose. In Mid-March, the chemist was suspended. A company employment performance assistance counselor scheduled a meeting for the chemist to meet with a professional counselor. That doctor signed an FMLA form on behalf of the chemist stating that the father was under stress and was qualified to take FMLA leave. A dispute arose over a medical release, and the worker was ultimately terminated.

The man filed a lawsuit against Chevron alleging that he was wrongfully discharged in retaliation for seeking FMLA leave. A trial court dismissed the case. But in late September a federal appellate panel disagreed and reinstated the man’s FMLA claim.

The issue did not arise in federal court chambered in New York. The appellate ruling came in a circuit court in the south, but highlights how life-changing family events outside of work may be covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The legal arguments in the trial and appellate courts in the recent FMLA lawsuit involve issues concerning how courts analyze these kinds of disputes. In essence, the company argued that the man was fired for insubordination, unexcused absences, poor performance and allegedly faking a nervous breakdown. The man says that he was fired for seeking FMLA leave. The appellate court says that a jury should resolve the dispute, not a ruling of the judge as a matter of law.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “Ion v Chevron No. 12-60682,” Sept. 26, 2013

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