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Court sides with employer that fired injured worker

Posted On: Dec. 7, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Court sides with employer that fired injured worker

A Texas employer didn't wrongfully terminate an injured worker who was let go following the expiration of his Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

Jorge Melendez worked for Kings Aire Inc., a family-owned heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company in El Paso, Texas, court records show. He was participating in demolition work on July 2, 2009, when a light fixture fell on his wrist, cutting two tendons and the median nerve.

Mr. Melendez filed a workers compensation claim, and Kings Aire informed him that he was entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the calendar year under FMLA, according to records. His leave began retroactively on July 3, the day after he was injured.

Since he had not yet been cleared to return to work when his FMLA leave expired on Sept. 24, Mr. Melendez was informed on Sept. 28 that his employment had been terminated pursuant to company policy, records show. Kings Aire did, however, invite Mr. Melendez to reapply for available positions when he was able to return to work.

The following month, Mr. Melendez sued Kings Aire for breach of contract and for wrongfully discharging him in retaliation for filing a workers comp claim in good faith, according to records.

A jury in the 327th District Court in El Pasovoted in Mr. Melendez's favor. The court then rendered judgment on the jury's verdict, awarding Mr. Melendez past and future lost earnings and employee benefits, vacation-pay damages, prejudgment interest on the past-damages awards, and attorney's fees relating to the breach-of-contract claim, records show.

Kings Aire appealed and, in November 2013, the 8th District Court of Appeals affirmed. The Texas Supreme Court then granted Kings Aire's petition for review.

Kings Aire's policy discussing workers comp leave states that the company is “covered by workers compensation insurance, that the insurance covers employees who suffer an occupational injury or illness, that employees who are unable to work may exhaust their vacation time or receive income benefits through workers compensation insurance, and that employees who lose time because of such injuries must provide an excuse from their treating physician and a clearance to return to work. The subsection does not contain specific limitations on the amount of workers compensation leave permitted,” according to records.

The Texas Supreme Court overturned the appellate court's decision on Friday, ruling that Mr. Melendez wasn't wrongfully terminated.

“The assertion that Kings Aire acted improperly by placing Melendez on FMLA leave, regardless of whether he specifically requested it, ignores Kings Aire's legal obligations under the FMLA itself,” the ruling states.

Kings Aire is responsible “for designating leave as FMLA-qualifying, and for giving notice of the designation to the employee,” according to the ruling. “When an employer has enough information to determine whether the leave is taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the employer must notify the employee whether the leave will be designated and counted as FMLA leave.”

The Texas Supreme Court further found that no evidence supports the jury's verdict.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Eva M. Guzman wrote that, “on occasion, workplace injuries may require employees to take medical leave extending beyond the FMLA's protections, but employers may nevertheless manage the resulting burdens on their businesses by enacting and enforcing reasonable leave policies. If an employee remains on leave beyond 12 weeks, the employee can be terminated when such a policy requires it, even if the employee has engaged in protected conduct under the Workers' Compensation Act.”