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Fired TV station employee’s disability and FMLA claims reinstated

Fired TV station employee’s disability and FMLA claims reinstated

A TV station video editor’s supervisors gave inconsistent reasons for including him a reduction-in-force, says a federal appeals court in reinstating the employee’s Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act claims.

Gerald Caldwell, who began work as a video editor at KHOU-TV in Houston in 1995, was disabled at the time he was hired because he had suffered childhood bone cancer and used crutches, according to Monday’s ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Gerald Caldwell v. KHOU-TV; Gannett Co. Inc.

By late 2012, video editors began spending a much larger portion of their work time in electronic digital recording, but Mr. Caldwell’s supervisors did not schedule him to work there because they felt it would be difficult for him to move around the EDR room, which was tight in spots. Despite this, Mr. Caldwell would spend time in the room when other editors went on break, according to the ruling.

In March or April 2014, Mr. Caldwell said he would need leave for two upcoming surgeries, but did not have a date for the second surgery because it depended on the first procedure’s outcome.

Also in 2014, the station’s parent firm, McLean, Virginia-based Gannett, mandated a reduction-in-force and required the station to eliminate two editor positons. Mr. Caldwell and another employee were terminated.

While the other employee had been informed of his inadequate performance, Mr. Caldwell “was not given equivalent forewarning or opportunity to improve his performance,” the ruling said.

Mr. Caldwell filed suit against the station and Gannett in U.S. District Court in Houston, charging violations of the ADA and FMLA. The District Court granted the defendants summary judgment dismissing the case.

A three-judge appeals court panel reinstated the charges. Mr. Caldwell “has presented sufficient evidence to raise a question of material fact as to whether the defendants’ (reduction-in-force) rationale and their attendant reasons for terminating him were mere pretext,” said the ruling. 

“The defendants’ explanation (for the termination) has transformed over time; they first asserted that Caldwell shirked his responsibilities by refusing to do the EDR work he had been assigned and then later claimed that Caldwell did not take the initiative to seek out additional EDR work,” said the ruling.

“There is also a question as to whether the defendants’ lack-of-initiative explanation was truthful. Caldwell testified, and his supervisors confirmed, that it was ultimately the employer’s decision to limit Caldwell’s time working in EDR, not Caldwell,” said the ruling in reinstating his ADA and FMLA claims and remanding the case for further proceedings.

A footnote to the ruling states the station rehired Mr. Caldwell during the course of the litigation. “Since being rehired, Caldwell has shown to be capable of performing EDR work and it now constitutes a significant majority of the work he does,” the footnote states.

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