The Nebraska Supreme Court recently ruled on claims for disability discrimination and alleged retaliation against an employee for her filing of a worker’s compensation claim. Neither claim withstood a motion for summary judgment. The case is a helpful reminder of the importance of adhering to your policies in every instance and also shows how strictly courts will apply statutes of limitations, to an employer’s benefit here.
Facts of the Case
Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff employed Melinda Brown as a customer service representative in its financial services department. She fell in the parking lot on August 16, 2011, injuring her hand and wrist. Ms. Brown filed a worker’s compensation claim with the medical center. She took twelve weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Following the FMLA leave, Ms. Brown was granted another eight weeks of director-approved leave, consistent with the medical center’s policies. Also consistent with such policy, the eight week leave was granted but the medical center did not guarantee her position would be held for her at its expiration, and informed her she should apply for open positions during the leave. This leave was to expire on January 7, 2012.
While on leave, Ms. Brown submitted a request for a reasonable accommodation to perform her customer service job. Her alleged impairment was limited use of her injured hand. The accommodation requested was simply to have a job to come back to after she was cleared of restrictions by her physician. Ms. Brown never returned to work after the accident or after her periods of approved leave.
Instead, she was placed on furlough status on January 8, 2012, in further accord with Regional West Medical Center’s policies. The policy was to place an employee who does not return from leave on furlough status for up to one year from the date of the initial absence, during which she continued to receive employee benefits, was not paid salary, and in which her job was not held for her. To return during the one-year furlough, Ms. Brown would have to apply and be approved for an open position at the medical center. Ms. Brown received a letter January 12, 2012 informing her of this.
Ms. Brown’s furlough expired on August 15, 2012; one year after her work-related injury absences began. She applied for no jobs at the medical center during furlough. On that same date, the medical center sent Ms. Brown a termination letter, citing the expiration of the furlough as the reason for “administratively ending your employment.”
Employee’s Claims and Suit
Ms. Brown filed a charge of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practice Act on December 20, 2012. She claimed that she was denied a reasonable accommodation and terminated because of her disability. The Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission ultimately issued a right to sue notice.
The ADA and NFEPA claims were brought in the District Court of Scottsbluff County along with a common claim of retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim. That court entered summary judgment on all claims, and the employee appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The issue on appeal with regard to the ADA and NFEPA claims of discrimination involved the statute of limitations for filing those charges with the NEOC. There was no genuine dispute of material fact that Ms. Brown was sent the letter notifying her of the expiration of her furlough’s expiration date and that she would be terminated upon that occurrence. The date of the letter was January 8, 2012, and she acknowledged receiving it soon after within her NEOC charge of discrimination.
It was that letter that constituted the adverse act by the medical center against Ms. Brown. The letter was clear that she was going to be terminated on August 15, 2012 unless she applied and obtained another position during her furlough. She never even applied for another position during that time. Thus, the medical center’s decision was known to Ms. Brown in January 2012.
A charge of discrimination under Nebraska and federal law must be filed with the NEOC within 300 days of the adverse action against the employee. The Court found that date was in January 2012 here, yet Ms. Brown did not file her charge until December 20, 2012, more than 300 days after the letter was sent to her. As a result, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the claims because of the expired statute of limitations.
The claim of retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim did not have to be submitted first to the NEOC or any agency. It was appropriately brought in court and within the requisite time period. However, that claim failed because the undisputed material facts showed it could not be proven to any reasonable jury at a trial.
To establish retaliation in this context, a plaintiff must establish that she filed a worker’s compensation claim, that she was terminated from employment, and that a causal link exists between the termination and filing the claim. A retaliatory motive may be shown by proximity in time between filing the worker’s compensation claim and the termination, coupled with satisfactory prior work performance and good supervisor evaluations.
In Ms. Brown’s case, the evidence indisputably showed that there were 20 weeks between the time of filing for worker’s compensation benefits and her administrative furlough. It was even longer until she was administratively terminated (which occurred one year after her first absence for the work-related injury). Most significant, Regional West Medical Center’s human resource officers had testified in depositions that they followed the absence, leave, and furlough policies to the letter and in the same manner as with employees similarly situated to Ms. Brown. Thus, there was no evidence of a retaliatory motive and the time between the worker’s compensation claim and the termination was not proximate.
Brown vs. Regional West Med. Ctr. 300 Neb. 937 (2018).
Takeaway for employers
This case shows two important principles that repeat in employment claims. First, the statute of limitations can be powerful. Second, clear policies for human resources and supervisors to execute can be equally powerful. Applying those policies similarly in each instance can go a long way to negate any claim of improper motive or unfairness in the policy’s effects. If you have questions about how to craft a clear and easy to execute policy, keep your attorneys just a phone call or email away.