7th Circuit partly reinstates late worker’s wrongful termination case

A trailer factory worker’s lawsuit against the employer who fired him after he sustained a broken rib was partially reinstated by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found there may be evidence the company interfered with his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Buddy Phillips, who has since died, was fired in 2015 from his job of 13 years at United Trailers after he suffered a broken rib while playing with his grandchildren. He called the company over the following two weeks to report he would miss work, but at some point he stopped calling and was fired. According to the record, the company never informed him of his right to unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Phillips sued United, alleging his rights under the FMLA were violated and asserting a claim of retaliation, among others. The Northern Indiana District Court granted summary judgment in favor of United.

The 7th Circuit partially reversed in a nonprecedential order Jan. 27 that was published as an opinion Thursday. The appellate panel reinstated Phillips’ claim of interference with his rights under the FMLA and remanded for proceedings. The panel affirmed judgment for United on Phillips’ retaliation claim.

“Regarding Phillips’s interference claim, the district court acknowledged triable questions existed over whether Phillips’s rib injury was a serious medical condition. The court noted the record was thin on this point: Phillips was diagnosed with a broken rib and told to perform activity as tolerated; his primary care physician told him to not return to work (for several weeks); and his wife and daughter testified Phillips’s ability to walk and lift his arms were impaired,” the panel wrote in a per curiam decision.

“While the proof was sparse, the court ruled a reasonable jury could conclude Phillips’s rib injury was a qualifying serious medical condition. Next, the district court determined that questions of fact existed as to whether Phillips provided adequate notice of his injury to United. The court noted that the evidence showed Phillips had called United and communicated his rib injury. While the parties disputed the precise contents of the conversation, because Phillips had done more than merely ask for time off — he provided a reason for his absence — it was a material question of fact for the jury to decide whether Phillips had provided adequate notice.”

The case is Brandi Lutes, Personal Representative of the Estate of Buddy F. Phillips v. United Trailers, Inc., and United Trailers Exporting Inc., 19-1579.

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