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Third Circuit Court Holds Employer May Have Violated Law against Discrimination in Firing Long-Time Employee

By on November 14, 2014 in ADA with 0 Comments

Segundo Rojas worked 28 years for Acuity Brands Lighting, Inc.  In June 2011, Rojas was approved to leave work for a vacation to Ecuador set to last from June 27 to July 12, 2011.  However, he became ill in Ecuador from diverticulitis and did not return until September 12, 2011.

Rojas claimed that he was stricken with a painful bout of diverticulitis in Ecuador.  He did not contact the company because he did not speak English and did not have the appropriate fax number.  Instead, he faxed medical records to his daughter, instructing her to give the documents to his son, Washington, who worked at the ABL facility as well.  Washington was tasked with informing the company.

Washington claimed he spoke with a shop steward and union representative, Calvin Hughes, who assured him that everything was fine.  Rojas contended that this information was relayed to the Plant Manager and Director of Human Resources.  The company denied this.

When Rojas did not return to work following his vacation, the company sent a letter of termination three days later. Rojas argued in his law suit that he was discriminated against on the basis of disability.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the state equivalent of the ADA, has a very broad standard, namely proof of an infirmity caused by an illness that prevents the normal exercise of one’s bodily or mental functions.  Rojas established that he started treating for Diverticulitis in 1996 or 1998 and had continued gastrointestinal problems thereafter.  In fact, in April 2011, just a few months before he left for Ecuador, he had a CT scan of his abdomen and pelvis.  While in Ecuador, Rojas saw local physicians who diagnosed him with Colitis.  His Ecuadorian doctor recommended rest until September 1, 2011. Rojas alleged that he was so sick in Ecuador that he could not do anything without having pain and had to go to the bathroom frequently.

The Third Circuit found that there was sufficient evidence that Rojas suffered from an illness which caused an infirmity that prevented the normal exercise of his bodily functions.  Further, the court was satisfied that Rojas was performing his job duties at an acceptable level prior to his trip to Ecuador.  He worked there 28 years with good job ratings and had no absenteeism issues.

The most hotly disputed issue in this case was whether the company knew Rojas had a disability.  If it did not, the company could not be found to have discriminated based on disability.  Rojas produced testimony that certain company officials knew his condition through his son.  Clearly, plaintiff could show that the shop stewards were aware of his condition and were involved in employment decisions at the company.  Whether the shop stewards became aware before or after termination was not clear.  The Collective Bargaining Agreement directed employees to check with their shop steward about vacation days.  For these reasons, the court held that there was sufficient evidence of notice to avoid summary judgment by the company.

The company argued that Rojas was let go for failing to adhere to ABS’s no-call/no-show policy, and that this was a legitimate reason to terminate Rojas.  It cited the company handbook, but Rojas pointed out that he never received the handbook.

For all the reasons above, the Third Circuit ruled against the company in their motion for summary judgment.  It said that plaintiff produced enough evidence to allow the case to go to trial.  “Beyond the documentation that appears to support this particular instance of illness, there is evidence that  corroborates a history of illness and thus suggests that Plaintiff’s report of diverticulitis in Ecuador was genuine.  If so, the circumstances requiring Plaintiff’s absence were genuinely extenuating.”

This case may be found at Rojas v. Acuity Brands Lighting, Inc., 2014 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 87675 (3d. Cir. 2014).

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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