Court of Appeals Upends Summary Judgment in Case Against Steves

August 30th, 2021 by Drew Vass

A case against door manufacturer Steves and Sons Inc. (Steves) will have its day in court, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that a district court erred in granting summary judgment. The case includes state law disability discrimination and retaliation claims filed against the company by an ex-employee, as well as claims for retaliation and interference under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The recent decision to reverse summary judgment is hitched in part to discrepancies over a return-to-work form delivered by the employee to Steves, signed by a licensed vocational nurse (LVN). The timing and details of that form, the plaintiff suggests, could upend Steves’ cause for terminating employment.

The Fifth Circuit court reversed the judgment on FMLA retaliation, while affirming other aspects of the case.

According to court documents, the defendant, Abel Campos, worked for Steves, initially as a welder, starting in 2008, and later in a maintenance role, cleaning glue spreaders. An engineer for Steves told the court that the position required the ability “to squat and bend, climb stairs and ladders, walk throughout the plants, sit and stand for extended periods of time,” as well to “operate complex equipment and machinery” and regularly “lift heavy objects.” In 2015, Campos underwent open-heart surgery, which he says he discussed with his employer ahead of the operation. Human resources provided him with the required return-to-work form, he says, after which he personally delivered it back to the company, he claims. According to court documents, a representative for Steves said she was unaware of Campos’ plans for surgery until the procedure had already been performed. His last day on the job was July 20, 2015, court documents say, after which his surgery took place on August 5, 2015, leaving him “comatose and in critical condition for several weeks thereafter.”

While recovering, Campos says he received text messages from a Steves employee that made him question his employment status, but a human resources representative confirmed that he remained on staff, he claims. When Campos did return to Steves, he brought with him the signed release form, he says, which he says the company accepted without question. Employees for Steves later affirmed they did accept the form, but, “There is disagreement as to whether Steves and Sons offered Campos an alternate position that Campos then rejected or instead simply terminated Campos’s employment,” the resent court document says. In March 2016, he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), claiming he was discriminated against based on “disability and retaliation,” after which he also filed suit in state court, later tacking on federal FMLA-related claims. Steves removed the case in April 2018, placing it with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, eventually motioning for summary judgment. The district court granted that motion.

In the prior decision for summary judgment, the district court found that not only was Campos unable to “establish that he was qualified at the time of his termination,” but he also “failed to show that a reasonable accommodation of his disability would have enabled him to perform the essential functions of his job.” The court further concluded that Campos failed to show an initial case of discrimination, determining that, even if he proved his case, Steves provided legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for his termination, which Campos “failed to refute with substantial evidence of pretext or with evidence that his disability was a motivating factor.”

In its justification for why Campos was terminated, officials for Steves pointed to the lack of a compliant release to return-to-work document, the expiration of his FMLA leave a month prior to his termination and his refusal to accept an alternative position, which the district court found to be legitimate and nonretaliatory. “We conclude all three reasons have been adequately rebutted for purposes of summary judgment,” the new Court of Appeals document states.

Campos argues that the release signed by an LVN authorizing him to return to work creates a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether or not he was qualified. “There was no requirement that the release form be signed by a doctor and nobody ever told Campos it was not sufficient,” the Court of Appeals document says.
“I agree with the majority that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Steves and Sons on Campos’ Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation claim,” wrote Circuit Judge James E. Graves, Jr. “However, I would also conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on Campos’ state law discrimination and retaliation claims. Because I would reverse and remand on those claims as well, I respectfully dissent in part.”

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