When employees knowingly take shortcuts that put a business and its employees at risk, their employer has every right to reprimand or even fire them for their actions. However, the company must follow the same baseline procedures for every employee in the organization to avoid possible litigation, especially if it's accused of disregarding one's legal rights in the past.
In 1994, Steve Smothers, a surface maintenance mechanic for Solvay Chemicals, Inc. in Wyoming, injured his neck, which led to a degenerative spinal disease. For the next decade, Smothers took legally-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as needed to undergo surgeries to relieve his chronic pain.
Although Smothers has the right to FMLA time, his managers and coworkers felt his absences were having a serious effect on their workload. Management requested that Smothers, who worked the graveyard shift, move to days in order that his absences could be better handled by staff. However, since the day shift required a pay cut, it was in violation of FMLA law, and Smothers refused. In turn, Smothers believed he received a negative performance evaluation and lost a promotion because of his absences.
A safety violation – and maybe something more – leads to termination
Solvay found a reason to get rid of Smothers in 2008. That year, when repairing pumping equipment, Smothers neglected to get a formal permit for the repair and failed to put a physical lock on the pump to prevent it from opening. When his coworker witnessed his attempt to circumvent proper procedures, the two got into a verbal altercation, leading to a report to management. In turn, Smothers was terminated for his failure to follow safety precautions and the fight itself, although he apologized for his actions.
However, Smothers was certain the firing was in retaliation for his FMLA leave. Solvay neglected to meet with Smothers about the altercation, although it met with his coworker to get his side of the story. In addition, other employees who had performed similar first-time safety violations had not been fired and the company did not follow its four-step disciplinary process. Solvay countered by saying that under Wyoming law, Smothers violated his employment contract and that their policies allow them to fire at their discretion an employee who violates safety precautions.
Case goes before appellate court
When reviewing the case, the district court sided with Solvay, finding that Smothers failed to show the company fired him for anything more besides the safety violation. Smothers appealed the judgment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the finding. The Court found evidence that:
- The complaints of managers over Smothers' FMLA leave set a negative pretext for his firing. Aggravated over the inconvenience of his medical leave, the company jumped at the chance to terminate him over the safety violation.
- Solvay treated Smothers' case differently than other employees who committed similar violations. Those coworkers were able to keep their jobs after they showed their remorse and promised to learn from their mistakes.
- The investigation into the altercation between Smothers and his coworker was inadequate. While the co-worker was asked to explain his side of the situation, Smothers was not.
According to the Tenth Circuit, Smothers is eligible to bring Solvay to court in order to try to secure restitution for the company's alleged illegal actions. The case demonstrates that although a company has the right to fire an employee for violating safety precautions, it must also follow the same procedures for every member of its staff, treating each person equally. When it uses a violation to fuel retaliation for FMLA, it clearly violates that employee's rights for equal treatment under employment law.