Family Medical Leave Case Summary.
JORGE LOPEZ V. ESTELLA LOPEZ, VERIZON NEW JERSEY INC.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder are both serious medical conditions that could be used to take leave from a job under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
A person suffering from these mental conditions can take time off to seek treatment or as a result of suffering from symptoms related to the condition. However, a person going through mental duress must still abide by company policies.
In the case of Jorge Lopez v. Estella Lopez, Verizon New Jersey Inc., Mr. Lopez, who suffered from PSTD and bi-polar disorder at the time, was terminated due to an emotional outburst that resulted in the destruction of a computer monitor and nearby employees feeling threatened.
Lopez took an FMLA-covered leave after the outburst to receive treatment for his condition and upon returning he was informed that his job had been terminated. Lopez then took legal action, claiming, among other things, that Verizon fired him in retaliation for taking his FMLA leave.
Jorge Lopez began work for Verizon in the telecommunications company’s Jersey City call center in June 2000 as a bilingual sales and service consultant. Although he had been experiencing symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder for years, Lopez, a US Marine Corps veteran was diagnosed in 2003 and 2004. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2004 when he first started experiencing symptoms consistent with that disorder.
From about August 2006 onward, Lopez began to have a series of disciplinary actions and dust-ups related to his conduct and altercations with other employees, including the named defendant in the case Estella Lopez (no relation). At one point in 2007, Lopez was reassigned to work under a different manager in an effort to avoid working under Ms. Lopez.
While working at Verizon, Mr. Lopez filed numerous claims for FMLA leave. These claims started in 2004 and the overwhelming majority of these claims were approved by Verizon’s Absence Reporting Center (ARC). In the forms for the first set of absences in 2004, a psychiatrist noted Lopez’s “depressed mood, inability to concentrate, low energy, (and) mood swings.”
After each one of these FMLA leave periods, Lopez came back to his job without any negative consequences, almost as if he had never left.
On October 6, 2008, Lopez was talking to an “irate” customer over the phone. He said he determined the customer had a problem he could not solve and tried to get assistance from a supervisor but could not.
Feeling “like the walls had been closing in” on him, Lopez then stood up and yelled for help. A coworker sitting across from Lopez told him that he was “freaking her out.” He then sat down, grabbed a computer monitor and slammed it down onto his desk.
Lopez then went to his wife’s desk, Li Min Cruz, and told her that he was going home. He then went to Ms. Lopez’s office, where he found manager Elizabeth Pino, who said, “Jorge, you need to go see a doctor.”
Lopez then left and went home. He did not come back next day and immediately requested a leave of absence under FMLA and short-term disability leave was granted. This disability leave ran simultaneously with his FMLA leave.
While Lopez was out on leave, the team leader Americo Colon commenced an incident investigation. Colon took photographs of Plaintiff’s cubicle and drew up a written report, which incorporated various claims of witnesses. Statements from coworkers show that they were bothered by the event. Lopez would later contest the reliability of photo taken by Colon.
In November, Lopez came back to work and on November 24 he was interviewed by a Verizon security investigator in tandem with Ms. Lopez. Lopez’s spouse was also present at this interview. During that interview, Lopez stated, “I believe I lost control, no reason, loss of control,” regarding his conduct.
Lopez was then suspended without pay pending the completion of the investigation. Ultimately, after the investigation Lopez was terminated as of December 12, 2008, for violations of the company’s code of conduct.
On December 18, 2008, the Union introduced a grievance on Lopez’s behalf in reference to his suspension and termination. The grievance was rejected, as was the following appeal. In a letter dated April 21, 2009, the Union suggested that it was not taking the issue to arbitration after reviewing the facts. Lopez did not follow up on this course of action but did commence legal action in the New Jersey Superior Court of Morris County on October 1, 2010.
The Court’s Decision
In his court case, Lopez argued, among other things, that Verizon has retaliated against him for taking leave under FMLA by terminating his job.
The district court did find a loose causal link between the timing of Lopez’s termination and his taking of leave. However, it ultimately failed to find that his FMLA rights had been violated.
The court pointed out that Lopez had taken a number of other FMLA leaves in the past without any negative consequences. It went on to say that Lopez didn’t supply evidence that his termination was not based on violations of the Verizon conduct code as the company had asserted. Lopez could have also shown evidence supporting his claim that the company wanted to get back at him for taking leave under FMLA but did not.
The court noted that the only substantial fact supporting Lopez’s case for retaliation was the short time span between his leave period and his termination. The fact was simply not enough to show there was a pretext for his firing or show motivation to retaliate.
The court added that Lopez made several other claims, but each one couldn’t overcome Verizon’s claim that he was fired solely due to his conduct and destruction of property.
Ultimately, the case shows that a company can defend itself against FMLA claims if it follows the law’s guidelines and applies its company policies to the person taking leave as it would to any other employee.