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Court of Appeals Rejects Walmart Appeal Seeking to Overturn Disability Retaliation Verdict

The United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit has affirmed a New Jersey District Court’s decision denying post-trial motion for judgment by Walmart after the jury entered a verdict against them in favor of a former employer.  The former employee, Barry Boles, claimed that he was unlawfully terminated by Walmart in retaliation for taking medical leave because of his disability.  The jury agreed, and found Walmart liable for back pay damages in the amount of $130,000, emotional distress damages in the amount of $10,000, punitive damages in the amount of $60,000 and attorney fees and costs in the amount of $200,000.  Walmart appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals.

In this case entitled, Barry Boles v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the employee Mr. Boles had worked for Walmart for many years.  Mr. Boles first went out on a medical leave on May 8, 2011, after going to the emergency room for a large blister on his leg.  The large blister progressed into a five or six inch ulcer requiring Mr. Boles to take an extended medical leave of absence.  Walmart eventually placed Mr. Boles on medical leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act from June 22, 2011 through September 10, 2011.  During his FMLA leave, Mr. Boles’ treating doctor provided a certification that advised Walmart that Mr. Boles would not be able to return to work until October/November, 2011.

On October 23, 2011, Mr. Boles returned to work, but learned that he could not log onto his computer.  Mr. Boles attempted to reach out to the Market Human Resource Manager, Quawad McDonald, to find out his status, but his attempts were ignored by Mr. McDonald.  Finally, on or about October 29, 2011, Mr. Boles received a letter from Mr. McDonald advising him that he had been terminated as of October 25, 2011 for “failure to return” to work.

Mr. Boles presented two claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination during trial of the matter, which included retaliation and failure to reasonably accommodate his request for extended leave.  As to the retaliation claim, the jury found that (1) Mr. Boles was in a protected class as a result of his disability; (2) Mr. Boles engaged in protected activity by requesting medical leave to his employer; (3) Mr. Boles was subjected to an adverse employment action by being terminated from his employment; (4) there was a casual link between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  Because Mr. Boles was able to prove all these elements, the jury found that Walmart had unlawfully retaliated against Mr. Boles for exercising his right to take a medical leave for his disability.

In addition to finding liability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination  for unlawful retaliation, the jury also awarded punitive damages against Walmart.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court and jury’s conclusion that the Walmart Store Manager and the Human Resource Manager met the definition of upper management and that their wrongful conduct, including ignoring Mr. Boles communications and falsely claiming that he abandoned his job, supported the jury’s determination of the award punitive damages.

This case is an important reminder to employers of the strong legal protections available under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to disabled employees including their right to take a medical leave of absence.