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AMC Theatres must face lawsuit after firing reservist

Ohio National Guard

A federal appeals court has reinstated charges that a movie chain violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and analogous Ohio law when it terminated an employee who is in the Ohio National Guard.

Jared Hickle began working at a theater owned by Leawood, Kansas-based American Multi-Cinema Inc., which operates AMC Theatres, in 2004, when he was still in high school, and joined the Ohio Army National Guard in 2008, according to Thursday’s ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Jared Hickle v. American Multi-Cinema Inc.

In April 2013, he was promoted to kitchen manager at an Easton, Ohio, theater. “Although AMC never prevented Hickle from fulfilling his military obligations or denied him time off, one Senior Manager … repeatedly expressed disapproval when Hickle had to take time off for military duty,” according to the ruling. In one incident, when he could not stay late because of having to report for duty, she told him he “need(ed) to find another job,” according to the ruling.

Another time, when he told the manager firing him for missing work because of military obligations would be illegal, she said, “That’s OK. We will find something else to terminate you on.”

After an incident involving a dispute over food that was allegedly to be taken home by another employee, an investigation was started, and Mr. Hickle was terminated.

He filed suit in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, charging violation of USERRA and state law. The court granted the theater chain summary judgment dismissing the case, which a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously reinstated.

“Hickle offered evidence that (the manager) persistently made anti-military comments, up to and including threatening to get him fired for ‘something else’ when Hickle had to miss a weekend for military duty.

“He offered evidence, that she was, in fact, plotting to get him fired,” said the ruling. “This evidence is more than sufficient for a reasonable jury to infer that (the manager) intended to cause Hickle’s termination.”

While the theater said it conducted “a thorough and independent investigation,” the ruling said, “as best we can tell, the investigation consisted mostly of gathering statements from a few employees, and was not necessarily thorough.”

“Even if Hickle did not have direct evidence of discriminatory intent, he also presented circumstantial evidence that suggests AMC was motivated by anti-military animus,” the ruling added.

“The district court thought it strong evidence in AMC’s favor that AMC had never denied Hickle’s requests to take time off for military obligations.

“We do not find this fact to be determinative, as there could be numerous situations in which an employer would grant requests for military leave (albeit grudgingly) for years and nevertheless finally wrongfully terminate an employee for taking such leave,” said the ruling, in reversing the lower court’s decision and remanding the case for further proceedings.

Attorneys in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

In 2017, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling and held a staffing agency violated USERRA when it fired an employee who had missed a day’s work because of a back reinjury that occurred while he was on reserve duty. 

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