ADA, FMLA charges reinstated against Walmart

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    Walmart

    A federal appeals court has reinstated Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act charges filed by a former injured Walmart Inc. worker who was fired after she refused an allegedly unfeasible alternative position.

    Stefany Hazelett, who was an order-filler at one of Walmart’s distribution centers, which was a substantial distance from her home, injured her foot at work in February 2015, according to Tuesday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Stefany Hazelett v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

    During her work-related temporary disability, Walmart offered Ms. Hazelett a temporary alternative duty assignment. The form on which she chose the assignment included an option for refusing the assignment, but provided if she did so, her benefits could be suspended or denied because of noncompliance.

    “In short, Hazelett was injured on the job, offered a (temporary alternative duty) which her injury prevented attendance, and then terminated due to the effects of her injury,” the ruling said.

    It said Ms. Hazelett’s disability prevented her from operating a motor vehicle and the temporary assignment would have required her “to report to work in the wee hours of the morning when no public transportation, save a taxi, was available.” 

    Ms. Hazelett was ultimately discharged because of excessive absence on the same day she requested family medical leave, the ruling said.

    Walmart used Memphis, Tennessee-based Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. to handle its workers compensation cases and its request for leaves of absence, the ruling says, and Ms. Hazelett argues she did not initially realize she had to separately communicate to both departments at Sedgwick, one for her workers compensation claim and another department, for her leave request. Sedgwick is not a party in the litigation.

    Ms. Hazelett filed suit against the retailer in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on charges of violating the ADA and FMLA, and for public policy and FMLA retaliation. The court dismissed the case. Her ADA and FMLA violation charges were reinstated by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.

    “The Court concludes that there are significant material facts at issue with regard to the FMLA and ADA claims,” the ruling said.

    “There is evidence that: Hazelett called into work every single day to report her leave; Hazelett provided a doctor’s note for a period of leave that covered more than 1/3 of Hazelett’s leave; confusion existed about having to notify one company of her workers compensation claim and her request for leave by having to contact two different departments within the company; and whether Walmart provided Hazelett in writing with notice of any alleged deficiencies from her medical certification and allowed her to cure the deficiency,” the ruling said.

    “Overlying this confusion, Wal-Mart gave Hazelett a (temporary alternate duty ) offer that instructed that if she did not accept, she could lose her job and benefits.

    “A reasonable juror could conclude that Hazelett thought she had to sign the form in order to keep her workers compensation benefits despite the fact she was unable to commute to the offered light-duty position.

    “Further, there are issues of material facts regarding whether Hazelett failed to comply with the policy and procedures before requesting leave, and whether such policies were ambiguous. The attempts she made to comply created issues of material facts to be decided at trial,” the ruling said.
    The ruling said also, “Viewing the evidence the light most favorable to Hazelett, she meets all the requirements of a prima facie case under the ADA, and for purposes of this motion: she is disabled, she is qualified; and she was fired by Wal-Mart,” the ruling said.

    Possible accommodations were not discussed nor offered, the ruling said. “There exist issues of material fact with regard to the possible accommodations offered to Hazelett and whether there was a meaningful interactive process,” the ruling said, in also restoring her ADA claim.

    The panel affirmed dismissal of the public policy retaliation and FMLA retaliation claims.

    Walmart said in a statement, “We are pleased that the Ninth Circuit agreed that Walmart did not retaliate against Ms. Hazelett for exercising her rights. We have thousands of associates who take leaves of absence and perform their jobs with reasonable accommodation. Walmart has processes in place to comply with the ADA and FMLA, and we will continue to defend the company on those remaining claims.”

    Ms. Hazelett’s attorney did not respond to a request to comment. 

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