Miner’s claim of retaliation given new life

Appeals court: Coal mine's firing rationale is inconsistent

A federal appeals court recently gave new legal life to a former coal miner’s claim that the West Elk Mine near Somerset retaliated against him by firing him when he sought accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Three judges with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that Colorado U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Babcock erred in 2014 in granting the mine’s owners a summary judgment dismissing the claim made by Eugene Foster before a jury could consider the case. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration consistent with its finding.

The mine is owned by Mountain Coal Co., a subsidiary of Arch Coal. Foster was working as a maintenance supervisor for the West Elk’s longwall mining operation on Feb. 5, 2008, when he turned his head quickly and felt a pop in his neck, according to court documents. When his neck continued to hurt the next day, he went to an emergency room and was told a bone chip had fragmented off his cervical vertebrae.

On April 3, 2008, the mine suspended him, later arguing in the court case that it needed to investigate whether he’d lied about obtaining a form from a doctor allowing him to return to work. Foster contends the suspension only surrounded the fact that he got the form without seeing the doctor, even though he’d repeatedly told the mine he hadn’t been able to see the doctor.

The appeals court noted that the mine was inconsistent in the reason it gave for Foster’s termination, with one mine official initially testifying that Foster’s release form “didn’t have the right date for his release and stuff on it,” before clarifying his explanation later.

Foster testified that on April 11, he visited his doctor and got a letter saying he likely needed surgery and shouldn’t keep doing the same kind of work. He notified the mine the same day. Three days later, he got a letter from the mine saying he’d been fired for providing false information about the return-to-work form. The letter was dated April 11, but the mine said it was effective April 9 and a mine official had tried to call Foster to fire him April 9 or April 10.

The appeals court pointed to questions surrounding the April 9 effective date given for the firing, noting that Foster’s immediate supervisor didn’t know about his being fired when Foster called him two days later. The court found that a jury could reasonably infer the mine knew of Foster’s April 11 accommodation request before drafting the letter firing him. It also found that a reasonable jury could conclude Foster also had asked for an ADA accommodation on April 3. Foster says he told the mine when he was suspended that he was going to a doctor to get surgery scheduled.

Pointing to the mine’s inconsistent rationale for firing Foster and the proximity in timing between his request for accommodation and his termination, the court ruled a “reasonable jury could disbelieve Mountain Coal’s proffered reason for Foster’s termination.”


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