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The Supreme Court of North Dakota on Friday overturned and remanded for new trial an earlier court ruling on a cook who slipped and fell at work and claimed she was fired before being able to take advantage of her rights to federal Family and Medical Leave Act benefits.
In March 2011, Debra Wald was injured while working for St. Rose, a long-term care center in LaMoure, North Dakota, and subsequently received medical treatment for her injury. Eventually she was awarded partial temporary disability benefits from 2011 to 2015. Her treating physician testified she was released to return to regular work duties without restriction in July 2011. Ms. Wald testified she would have been willing to go back to work “with some accommodations to see what she could do” and eventually attended some computer training courses through her employer’s insurer following her termination from St. Rose, but she stopped taking classes after she was denied further workers compensation benefits, according to documents in Debra Wald v. Benedictine Living Communities Inc., d/b/a St. Rose Care Center, filed in Bismarck.
On May 11, 2011, St. Rose notified Ms. Wald about her FMLA rights, and nine days later terminated her employment, according to records.
“St. Rose terminated her employment without providing her with an opportunity to effectuate those rights,” documents state. Ms. Wald testified she had not had a job after her employment was terminated by St. Rose because “she decided to be a stay-at-home wife and mother,” according to documents.
Meanwhile, under the federal law, St. Rose was required to provide Ms. Wald with notice of her FMLA rights to 12 weeks unpaid leave after her March 3, 2011, injury, “and that she was entitled to fifteen calendar days to obtain medical certification of a serious health condition to invoke her right to unpaid sick leave,” records state.
Ms. Wald eventually sued St. Rose, “alleging interference with her FMLA rights, termination in violation of the FMLA, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and discrimination in violation of the North Dakota Human Rights Act.”
The discrimination claims were dismissed before trial and at trial the district court granted Ms. Wald's motion for judgment on her FMLA interference claim and awarded her $9,800 in damages on that claim. Both parties then moved for judgment on the matter that St. Rose allegedly terminated her in violation of federal law, records state.
“In her motion, Wald argued she was entitled to judgment… on the issue of liability because she was terminated before effectuating her FMLA rights. Wald asserted that ‘the only issue that should be going to this jury on the FMLA claim is (her) damages for termination in violation of the FMLA,’” records state.
A district court denied both parties' motions for judgment on Ms. Wald's FMLA termination claim and a jury later returned a special verdict finding “that Wald failed to prove St. Rose was liable for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress,” records state.
Yet the jury found that St. Rose terminated Wald in violation of the FMLA and that she would have earned $118,610.76 in wages, salary, employment benefits and other compensation in her employment with St. Rose from the date of her termination through the date of the verdict. But the jury found “that Wald failed to mitigate her damages by not seeking out or taking advantage of employment opportunities reasonably available to her after her termination and that she would have earned $118,610.76 if she had sought out or taken advantage of reasonably available employment opportunities.”
The special verdict effectively awarded Ms. Wald no damages for her FMLA termination claim.
Ms. Wald moved for a new trial on damages, arguing “St. Rose had the burden to show she failed to mitigate her damages and St. Rose failed to present any evidence of substantially equivalent employment opportunities reasonably available to her in the LaMoure area from the date of her termination to the date of trial to support the jury's finding that she could have earned $118,610.76 if she had sought out or taken advantage of those opportunities.”
At issue was the jury’s instructions, which did not include details whether Ms. Wald could have secured alternative employment.
Friday’s ruling concluded that “the district court misapplied the law in ultimately determining the jury could rely on its common knowledge and experience to conclude she could have earned $118,610.76 if she had sought substantially equivalent jobs reasonably available to her after her termination.”
“Because we conclude the jury's determination of that amount was based on speculation and conjecture, we conclude the court misapplied the law in determining the jury could rely on its common knowledge and experience in denying Wald's motion for a new trial. We reverse the district court's denial of Wald's motion for a new trial and remand for a new trial on damages.”
St. Rose could not immediately be reached for comment.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s dismissal of Family and Medical Leave Act interference and retaliation claims by a terminated injured worker, but reversed the dismissal of his claims that his firing violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.