City Welder Not Rehired After FMLA Leave Entitled to Liquidated Damages, Court Rules

Daily Labor Report® is the objective resource the nation’s foremost labor and employment professionals read and rely on, providing reliable, analytical coverage of top labor and employment...

May 13 --A former Hot Springs, Ark., welder who prevailed at trial on his claim that the city failed to rehire him because he had taken medical leave is entitled to liquidated damages under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled May 12 .  

Reversing the denial of liquidated damages to Wayne Jackson, the Eighth Circuit found that Hot Springs offered no evidence that it acted in subjective good faith or that it had an objectively reasonable belief that its refusal to rehire Jackson didn't violate the FMLA.

Nevertheless, it said the lower district court summarily stated that the city met that burden “without providing any factual support for this finding.” In doing so, the lower court abused its discretion, the appeals court said.

Judge Raymond W. Gruender wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Roger L. Wollman and Diana E. Murphy.

Worker Had Gallbladder, Pancreas Problems

According to the court, Jackson worked as a welder/machinist in the city's wastewater lift stations department. In January 2010, he had surgery because of problems with his gallbladder and pancreas, and used paid sick leave and FMLA leave for his recovery.


Although Jackson received the highest rating among three job applicants and his former boss recommended him for rehire, the hiring supervisor said that reemploying Jackson would be a “mistake.”  

 


Hot Springs ultimately terminated Jackson when he did not return to work after the expiration of his leave in July 2010. The next month, Jackson's doctor cleared him to return to work and he reapplied for his old position.

Although Jackson received the highest rating among three job applicants and his former boss recommended him for rehire, the hiring supervisor, Larry Merriman, said in an e-mail to human resources that reemploying Jackson would be a “mistake.” Merriman didn't fill the position, concluding that proper interview procedures allegedly were not taken.

The city reposted the job in January 2011. Jackson again applied, but was not selected for an interview. Merriman later claimed other candidates had better diagnostic and computer skills in comparison to Jackson. However, unlike Jackson, the individual hired didn't have experience with all of the machines in the department.

Jury Returned Verdict in Favor of Employee

Jackson brought multiple claims against the city in January 2012, including retaliatory failure-to-hire under the FMLA and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. Those were the only two claims that proceeded to trial.

The jury in January 2013 returned a verdict in favor of Jackson, awarding him $56,000 in lost compensation and $25,000 for emotional distress.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas vacated the emotional distress award, denied Jackson's request for liquidated damages, and denied Hot Springs's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Jackson and the city both appealed.

Eighth Circuit Partially Affirms, Reverses

The Eighth Circuit partially affirmed and reversed the district court's rulings, first upholding its denial of judgment as a matter of law to the city.

The appeals court said Jackson presented sufficient evidence, including statements and actions by Merriman, that established a causal link between his use of FMLA leave and the city's failure to rehire him.

In addition, the court said the jury could reasonably conclude that the stated reasons for Jackson's nonselection were pretextual. For example, Merriman provided shifting explanations for refusing to hire Jackson in October 2010 and for not selecting him for interview in January 2011, the court said.

The Eighth Circuit also agreed with the district court that Jackson wasn't entitled to emotional distress damages because they aren't available under the FMLA. Although such damages are allowed under the ACRA, the state law doesn't provide a cause of action based on FMLA retaliation, it said.

Finally, the court reversed the denial of FMLA liquidated damages, concluding that the city didn't demonstrate that it “acted with subjective good faith and that it had an objectively reasonable belief that its conduct did not violate the law.”

The city seemingly offered only its reasons for not rehiring Jackson to meet that burden, and the court said such a showing is “insufficient to amount to good faith.”

“[A] good-faith finding based on Hot Springs's alleged reasons for its decision not to rehire Jackson would be an abuse of discretion because such a finding would disregard the jury's nonadvisory finding of intentional retaliation,” the court said.

Sutter & Gillham represented Jackson. City Attorney Brian Albright and the Arkansas Municipal League represented Hot Springs.


Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Wayne_Jackson_v_City_of_Hot_Springs_Docket_No_1301772_8th_Cir_Apr/1.