Walmart employee did not timely submit medical certification, so FMLA claims fail

A Walmart meat department employee who was injured in a fall and denied a transfer to lighter duty failed to submit a properly requested medical certification that would support her request for FMLA leave, so could not avail herself of FMLA protections, ruled a federal district court in Texas, granting summary judgment in part. The employee’s sex discrimination claim failed as well because the denial of a lateral transfer was not an adverse employment action. However, her termination, together with evidence that managers wanted to hire younger workers for her department sustained her age discrimination claim under the ADEA. The court declined to rule on the ADA claim, finding that further briefing was needed on whether lifting restriction constituted a disability.

Work injury.

At the age of 64, the employee began working for Walmart in its meat department. The following year, she slipped in the meat freezer. Her physician released her to return to work the following day provided that she not pick up more than ten pounds. Several days later, a company physician differed slightly and indicated that she should lift no more than 20 pounds. The company placed her on light duty. After a few months, another company doctor released her to return to her full duties. Most boxes in the department weighed from about 50 to 75 pounds, and there was testimony that the employee was often in pain and had difficulty lifting. Although there were openings in other areas, the company denied her repeated requests to be placed outside of the meat department. Other employees who were hurt were assigned light duty, such as shredding paper.

Discriminatory remarks.

Meanwhile, according to testimony by an individual who had hiring responsibilities, the store manager told him to hire younger people for the meat department “because they’re a lot faster, quicker [and] don’t have to deal with any type of missed days or doctor’s – doctor appointments or whatnot.” In addition, the employee claimed that during her employment she was called a “housewife” by a store manager who told her that she “could do the dishes, you’re used to that,” and “you’re a woman, what do you expect?”

FMLA application denied.

As time passed, the employee’s back began to hurt more, resulting in her applying for FMLA leave. Her FMLA leave request was preliminarily approved conditioned on her submitting the necessary medical certification. She did not turn in the necessary medical certification despite two requests. Accordingly, her FMLA request was denied and she was terminated after failing to return to work. Filing suit, she alleged FMLA interference and retaliation, among other claims.

FMLA claims fail.

Granting summary judgment against the FMLA claims, the court found that Walmart had a right to require a certification issued by a health care provider in a timely manner. The FMLA interference claim failed because the employee did not turn in the necessary medical certification despite two requests. The court further concluded that there was no evidence of FMLA retaliation. In her briefings, the employee provided no factual allegations to support this claim. Accordingly, she failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

Disability discrimination.

The judge declined to rule on the disability discrimination claims under the ADA and state law, finding that it needed more information to address the threshold requirement of whether the employee had a disability protected by the laws. She argued that she was not accommodated when she returned to work with a 20-pound lifting restriction. However, the court noted that while her work release conditions supported her contention that she had a substantial limitation, her court submissions failed to explain how she performed lifting functions in the context of daily living. The court felt it had no “analytical backdrop,” through which to decide if the employee was substantially limited in a major life activity because she could not lift heavy objects. Accordingly, the court ordered supplemental briefing with relevant evidence.

Age discrimination.

The court denied summary judgment on the employee’s age discrimination claim. She alleged that she did not receive reasonable accommodations when other, younger, male employees did. Her complaint also provided generally that the employer ignored her requests for a reasonable accommodation and in a retaliatory fashion terminated her. The court determined that her termination was an adverse employment action and she produced evidence that Walmart sought younger employees in the meat department. Accordingly, she raised a genuine factual issue for trial.

Gender discrimination.

The court dismissed the sex discrimination claim. The employee asserted that she was discriminated based on her gender when the company denied her the reasonable accommodation of restricted lifting. This claim failed because an employer’s failure to provide a requested lateral transfer does not constitute an adverse employment action under the pertinent statutes.

SOURCE: Quick v. Wal-mart Stores, Inc. dba Walmart, (S.D. Tex.), No. 2:16-cv-00109, June 2, 2017.
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