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Employer must face ADA, retaliation lawsuit: Appeals court

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An employee who was suspected of reporting his employer to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration may not have been given proper accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and might have been retaliatorily terminated, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday in reversing summary judgment granted by a lower court.

David Yinger worked as a handyman, machine operator and backup driver for Wichita, Kansas-based Postal Presort Inc. in July 2012 when the company was the subject of an unannounced investigation by OSHA regarding asbestos-related violations. Mr. Yinger alleged that the company’s leadership suspected he filed a report with OSHA, triggering the investigation which resulted in an $8,400 fine, court records in David Yinger v. Postal Presort Inc. show.

Later that year, Mr. Yinger, who had a pre-existing heart condition that required a pacemaker, underwent a procedure to replace the battery in the device. He developed an infection and was granted a 12-week unpaid leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Toward the end of his leave, Mr. Yinger informed his employer that his doctor would not release him back to work for an additional week after his leave was set to expire, court records show.

Mr. Yinger informed the company that his leave would need to be extended but said there was no further communication regarding his request. He said he contacted the company when his leave was nearly over to ask if the company was ready for him to return to work and was informed he was being terminated because the company was overstaffed, according to court documents.

Mr. Yinger said he requested a written termination letter so he could apply for unemployment benefits but his request was denied because the company said he voluntarily ended his employment by not returning from leave as originally scheduled, court records show.

Mr. Yinger filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Wichita, Kansas, against Postal Presort, claiming it failed to accommodate a reasonable accommodation request of one additional week of unpaid leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act and claimed retaliatory discharge under Kansas law. Postal Presort moved for summary judgment.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Postal Prepaid, finding that Mr. Yinger’s heart condition was not a disability and that the company had effectively granted his leave request. The court said the company would have faced an undue hardship by allowing Mr. Yinger to return to work because it had lost major contracts while he was on leave and therefore was overstaffed. Mr. Yinger appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment. The panel said it is unclear whether Prepaid Postal accommodated Mr. Yinger’s request for additional leave because there is evidence it failed to communicate with him about his request, did not hold his position open and discussed terminating him prior to the end of his leave.

The appeals court also found that the District Court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Prepaid Postal on grounds that reinstating Mr. Yinger would cause undue hardship to the company because the company demonstrated “shifting and inconsistent explanations for not holding Yinger’s job.”

Finally, the appeals court disagreed with the District Court’s finding that Prepaid Postal did not exhibit retaliatory behavior toward Mr. Yinger following the OSHA investigation and leading up to his termination. The court pointed to evidence that Mr. Yinger was treated unfavorably following the OSHA inspection and that the company may have failed to work with Mr. Yinger to extend his FMLA leave.

“Based on this evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude that PPI retaliated against Yinger as soon as the opportunity presented itself — after Yinger’s FMLA leave expired in April 2013,” the appeals court said.

The case was remanded to the District Court for further proceedings.

“We first were granted a strongly favorable summary judgment, that we did not in fact behave in these ways,” said Bryan Pulliam, president of Postal Presort, in a statement emailed to Business Insurance Friday. “The District Court found that the claims were unwarranted, and granted judgment in our favor, against Mr. Yinger. The 10th Circuit Court’s job was not to decide if we committed any wrongs, but rather only to decide if we should have originally been granted that summary judgment.  

“The appellate court has simply said that the claimant has a right to let a jury make these decisions, rather than the original judge alone, and we respect the Court's opinion in that regard,” Mr. Pulliam said.