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Judy Greenwald

Court allows suit for worker fired after revealing liver transplant plans

December 13, 2013 - 2:15pm

A worker who was fired the day after he told his employer he would need a liver transplant may have grounds for his claim he was terminated in order for his employer to avoid paying him medical benefits, says an appellate court in reversing a lower court ruling.

Jimmy Parker, a 10-year employee of Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in its Tupelo, Miss., plant, was terminated in 2007, the day after he provided the company with a letter from his physician explaining he needed the transplant, according to Thursday’s ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Jimmy Parker v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.

Mr. Parker filed suit against the company on several counts, most of which eventually were dropped, leaving only the charge the company had violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act’s anti-retaliation statute, said the appellate opinion. The company claimed he was terminated for failing to report his absences on various occasions.

The federal court based in Oxford, Miss., dismissed the case. However, the appellate court disagreed.

“The close timing between Cooper Tire’s discovery of Parker’s serious medical needs and his subsequent termination is circumstantial evidence that Cooper Tire terminated him with the specific intent to prevent Parker’s attainment of ERISA benefits — specifically, employer-provided medical benefits — for purposes of Parker’s prima facie case,” said the ruling.

“Here, we find that Parker has met his burden of showing pretext,” said the three-judge panel’s unanimous ruling. “Cooper Tire’s articulated reason for firing Parker was his failure to follow company procedures to report absences from work,” it said. “However, Cooper Tire repeatedly changed its determination as to which dates Parker actually failed to report his absences.

“Cooper Tire’s repeated inconsistency, in addition to efforts by Parker’s family to report absences on Parker’s behalf, are other factors lending support to Parker’s argument that Cooper Tire’s justification for his termination are pretextual,” said the appellate panel, in remanding the case for further proceedings.


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