By Brad Cave
Did Solvay Chemicals fire long-time employee Steven Smothers because of a first-time safety violation or because the company was tired of his frequent absences due to an ongoing medical disability? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Smothers provided sufficient evidence to suggest that Solvay’s stated reason for his termination was pretextual, allowing his claims for unlawful retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to proceed. Smothers v. Solvay Chem., Inc., No. 12-8013 (Jan. 21, 2014). The Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on his state law claim for breach of an implied employment contract.
Medical Treatments and Severe Pain Lead to Frequent FMLA-Protected Absences
For eighteen years, Smothers worked as a surface maintenance mechanic in Solvay’s trona mine in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. The company considered him to be an excellent mechanic who did great work and got along with everyone. In 1994, Smothers injured his neck and developed degenerative disc disease in his spine. Over the next five years, Smothers had three surgeries to his neck as well as numerous other medical procedures. Despite treatment by a specialist, Smothers continued to have severe ongoing neck pain, severe migraine headaches and lower back problems. At times, Smothers was unable to work without pain treatments and he often was able to sleep only a few hours each night due to the pain.
Smothers asked for and was granted FMLA leave for intermittent absences caused by his condition. Managers and co-workers began to complain about his absenteeism, especially because he worked on the graveyard shift where there were fewer workers to absorb his absences resulting in increased overtime costs. Solvay’s production superintendent Melvin Wallendorf pressured Smothers to change to the day shift, but Smothers refused as the shift change would have cost him about $7,000 a year. Solvay’s human resources department advised Wallendorf that urging Smothers to switch shifts would violate the FMLA so Wallendorf stopped pressuring Smothers but did not stop complaining about his absences.
At one point, Wallendorf and Rick Wehrle, Smothers’ direct supervisor, gave Smothers a poor performance rating on his evaluation due to his absenteeism. In 2005 or 2006, Smothers applied for a promotion but was told that he was rejected because of his absences.
Safety Issue Explodes into Argument
In 2008, the graveyard crew conducted a routine maintenance acid wash to remove build up in its equipment. After a line ruptured, Smothers saw that a damaged “spool piece” had caused the problem and prepared to remove it. Another mechanic, Dan Mahaffey, suggested that Smothers wait for a line break permit, which is a form that certifies that employees have completed a checklist of precautions before a line can be safely disconnected. Smothers said that a permit wasn’t required because the line was already broken. Mahaffey and Smothers then argued. Mahaffey offered help on the repair which Smothers refused. Mahaffey took offense and accused Smothers of hypocrisy since Smothers had previously reported others for safety violations. Smothers made an offensive comment to Mahaffey and told him he did not want his kind of help. Smothers removed the broken piece and began the repair.
Mahaffey immediately reported the argument and Smothers’ removal of the spool piece without a line break permit to the area supervisor. Later that same day, three managers called Smothers in to discuss the safety violation. Although completing the line break permit may not have been absolutely necessary, Smothers later conceded that he should have locked out the pump valve before removing the part according to Solvay’s safety policies. Smothers apologized for not locking the pump valve before removing the piece and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Smothers was sent home pending an investigation.
Six managers were involved in deciding what to do about the argument and the safety violation. Three of the managers personally talked with Mahaffey about the argument but no one spoke to Smothers about it. About eight days later, Solvay fired Smothers. Smothers sued in Wyoming federal court, alleging, among other claims, unlawful FMLA retaliation, ADA discrimination and breach of an implied employment contract based on Solvay’s employee handbook.