The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal jury verdict for a woman who alleged she was fired in retaliation for requesting to work from home.
The three-judge panel found the jury in August 2015 reasonably inferred the woman was terminated because her superiors were upset with the request.
The jury found in Tracy Wink’s favor that her retaliatory dismissal violated both the federal Family Medical Leave Act and a Wisconsin wage law and that her employer was liable for breach of contract.
Wink was employed by Miller Compressing Co. in Wisconsin.
Miller appealed the trial court result, arguing no reasonable jury could have found enough evidence to justify such a verdict.
But the federal appeals panel found the best conclusion — or at least one a reasonable jury could draw — was that Wink’s superiors were angry with her for requesting permission to work from home twice a week to care for her autistic child.
Wink had been working from home for several months under an unofficial arrangement, but shortly afterward the company implemented a rule change affecting Wink’s work schedule.
“My observation in this case is that the law provided the precise protection for which it was designed, to allow a mother to provide care for her disabled son,” said attorney Alan C. Olson of Alan C. Olson & Associates in New Berlin, Wis., who represented Wink.
“It really stands for the proposition that no good deed shall go unpunished in that while the company needed help from my client, she offered to do that by getting work done while she was at home and then dividing that between caring for her child. So she was helping out the employer in contrast to taking straight FMLA leave, and they punished her for that.”
Wink worked for Miller’s order-processing department since 1999. The company granted her request in July 2011 to take up to 12 weeks of intermittent FMLA leave through July 2012 to take her son to medical and therapy appointments.
In February 2012, Wink’s son was expelled from his day care program because of violent behavior linked to autism. On days she worked from home, the company agreed to let Wink record how many hours she spent working and how many hours she spent caring for her son — time the company did not need to compensate.
That summer, the company changed its policy to require all employees to work a five-day, 40-hour work week on the premises.
One of the company’s human resources officers notified Wink of the change on a Friday and required her to show up for work the following Monday to comply with its new orders.
Wink indicated she knew it would be “nearly impossible” to find day care for her son in such a short amount of time. Additionally, the human resources officer incorrectly told Wink that FMLA only offers leave for doctor and therapy appointments.
Wink returned to work that Monday and explained she wasn’t able to find day care for her son. But the human resources officer told her that a work day spent outside the office would be considered a “voluntary quit.”
She left the office to return home to care for her child, and the officer ordered her termination to be processed that day.
“This is only … about a six-week accommodation that she needed,” Olson said. “He was a preschooler at the time, and that made it particularly difficult to get the autistic child into a proper program.”
As a valued employee who worked from home for months without the company complaining, “the company had no compelling reason to fire her,” Judge Richard A. Posner wrote in the panel’s seven-page opinion.
“The best inference, or at least an inference that a reasonable jury could draw, was that Wink’s superiors were angry with her for requesting to be allowed to stay home (albeit working part of the day) two days a week, though she’d been doing that since February to the satisfaction of the employer,” he wrote.
“Hence the phony line that FMLA can’t be used to authorize leave to take care of a very sick child when obtaining day care for the child is difficult or even impossible because of the child’s particular ailment — autism that in this case manifested itself at times in violent behavior.”
Part of the jury’s $122,700 verdict for Wink included a $60,000 award for lost wages that were doubled as allowed by FMLA. Miller’s appeal also argued it should not have to pay the double damages because it acted in good faith.
However, Posner wrote Wisconsin Eastern District Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph “correctly rejected that argument,” as the jury was “within its rights” to find the company broke its contract by firing her without cause or advance notice.
“Human resources’ reaction to Wink’s plight could reasonably be found to be in retaliation against her for asking for FMLA leave for anything other than a doctor’s appointment or therapy …,” he wrote.
“Wink’s employment contract with Miller provided that a termination of it ‘without a reason arising from [e]mployee’s own action or inaction’ was a termination without cause that obligated Miller to give her three weeks’ advance notice of termination or continue paying her wages for the three weeks.”
Thompson Coburn LLP partner Susan M. Lorenc and associate Ryan J. Gehbauer represented Miller. Gehbauer declined to comment; Lorenc could not be reached.
The case is Tracy L. Wink v. Miller Compressing Co., 16-2339.