Employment Law Daily Ford employee on medical restrictions failed to show discrimination or retaliation, or breach of duty by union (1)
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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ford employee on medical restrictions failed to show discrimination or retaliation, or breach of duty by union

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

A Ford employee who was subject to medical restrictions following a workplace injury failed to show that the employer breached the applicable collective bargaining agreement by twice placing him on temporary leave, ruled the Sixth Circuit. Moreover, his union did not breach its duty of fair representation by failing to fully pursue his grievances regarding the placement of medically restricted workers in temporary jobs. Finally, the employee was unable to establish that Ford retaliated against him by placing him on no-work-available (NWA) status not long after he reopened a workers’ compensation claim against the company (Saunders v. Ford Motor Co., January 11, 2018, Gilman, R.).

Restrictions, job changes. Shortly after starting work at Ford in 2001, the employee injured his right arm when it got caught in a machine during a training exercise. The injury caused him to lose almost all use of the arm. He received workers’ compensation while he recovered. When he returned to work, his doctor imposed a temporary work restriction that prohibited him from lifting heavy loads, engaging in repetitive motions, or using his right arm. Those restrictions eventually became permanent. In the initial aftermath of his injury, Ford had assigned him to a series of temporary jobs. Ford next assigned him to an airbag-installation job, but placed him on NWA status after he developed carpal-tunnel syndrome from the work. The employee was eventually assigned to a torque-inspector job, which he held for nearly eight years.

Following the closure of the plant, he was transferred to Ford’s Louisville plant in January 2012. At that time, the Louisville plant was flooded with new workers and the demands of bringing a new vehicle online. It desperately needed trained and experienced torque inspectors. These circumstances allowed the employee to continue working as a torque inspector for another year, even though he lacked seniority for the position at the new plant. However, once the plant fully integrated the new workers, it reopened the torque-inspector jobs to the normal bid process. A more senior worker displaced him in January 2013. Thereafter, he was placed in several short-term jobs punctuated by a period of being on medical leave and being on NWA status. In August 2013, he was assigned to the paint department after it was determined that a job there met his medical restrictions. However, the paint fumes made him ill. It was ultimately concluded that the paint department was unsuitable for him, and he returned to NWA status. Eventually he received a permanent assignment as a final-line inspector.

CBA. Ford’s workforce is governed by a CBA with the United Auto Workers. The union often struggles to secure permanent job placements for medically restricted employees. Although seniority governed much of Ford’s employment policies, there were exceptions to seniority preference for employees on medical restrictions. A 2013 Letter of Understanding provided a detailed procedure for medical placement at the Louisville plant, including a plant placement committee composed of management and union representatives.

Grievances, charges, claims. In the 16 months prior to his permanent placement in 2014, the employee filed at least two grievances with his union. In the first grievance, he complained that Ford failed to fill temporary driving jobs with medically restricted workers. The second grievance alleged that Ford had wrongly placed him on NWA status without first determining whether he could perform an assembler job. The employee also filed charges with the EEOC, which were resolved. Additionally, he sought to reopen his original workers’ compensation claim, even though he had already exhausted his workers’ compensation benefits.

Finally, he filed suit against Ford alleging disability discrimination and workers’ compensation retaliation, among other claims. A district court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment, holding that his state-law claims, except the worker’s compensation retaliation claim, were preempted by § 301 of the LMRA. Subsequently, the court concluded that the employee failed to produce sufficient evidence from which a jury could find in his favor on either his § 301 claim or his workers’ comp retaliation claim.

No union breach. The employee provided no evidence that the union breached its duty of fair representation in connection with his grievances. In fact, the union pursued his concerns regarding NWA-status workers to the second stage of the grievance process. While the grievance did not appear to be entirely meritless, an employee cannot establish a breach of the duty of fair representation merely by proof that the underlying grievance was meritorious. Section 301 does not permit the court to second-guess the union’s apparent determination that the grievance lacked merit after it diligently filed the grievance, gathered evidence, and argued the employee’s case during the second-stage proceedings, and appealed that negative determination to a review board.

Here, nothing in the record limited the prioritization of medically restricted workers to only permanent available positions. Nevertheless, the evidence showed that Ford could not have placed the employee or other medically restricted workers in the temporary driving positions at issue in the grievance due to their very brief duration. The jobs lasted two weeks, and the placement committee met only once per month. Thus, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Ford. (As for his second grievance, it was time-barred.).

No retaliation. The court next turned to the employee’s failed workers’ compensation retaliation claim. The employee argued that the district court erred in analyzing his claim using the burden-shifting framework. He asserted that Ford’s efforts to force him to resign as a condition of settling his workers’ compensation claim constituted an adverse employment action. But he did not accept the settlement offer and continues to work for Ford. Because the terms and conditions of his employment did not change, the district court properly concluded that the rejected settlement offer did not constitute an adverse employment action.

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