Appelate Decision: No Wrongful Termination for Warehouse Worker
By Gordon Gibb
A lower court had assessed a $3.4 million judgement against Time Warner with regard to the firing of a warehouse employee over prescription drug use. The plaintiff, Patricia Hancock, was let go from her warehouse position due to her alleged violation of her employer’s drug policy. Hancock had alleged wrongful termination because the drug she was taking for pain, hydrocodone had been previously prescribed. Hancock further alleged her employer had failed to accommodate her short-term disability. A lower court agreed, and issued a judgement of $3.4 million against Time Warner.
The appellate panel, however, reversed the decision of the lower court because, in their view, the defendant was not adequately aware their employee had suffered a disabling injury and thus, could not be held responsible for wrongful termination based on discrimination for the plaintiff’s disability.
The appeals court determined that Hancock had failed to adequately inform her employer as to the extent of her injury, sustained as it was in a Time Warner warehouse.
“The employee cannot ‘expect the employer to read his mind and know he secretly wanted a particular accommodation and sue the employer for not providing it,’” the ruling said. “Any inferences drawn from the evidence must be a product of logic and reason, not speculation or conjecture.”
According to court documents associated with the California wrongful termination lawsuit, Hancock sustained an injury to her lower back while moving heavy pallets at a Time Warner warehouse. This was in August, 2011. The lower court determined that a warehouse supervisor who had ordered extra boxes for the pallets (and thus, increasing the weight which invariably led to the plaintiff’s injury) failed to advise Hancock to fill out an accident report, or to visit a doctor. However, according to court records the plaintiff failed to share with the supervisor that she required medical attention – nor did the plaintiff ask to return home.
According to the wrongfully terminated lawsuit, the plaintiff experienced increasing pain upon returning home later that day and took painkillers she had been prescribed previously following an unrelated surgical procedure.
Court records revealed that the following day, the warehouse supervisor took the plaintiff to see a physician, and the plaintiff was cleared for work. However, a routine drug test taken as part of the doctor consultation revealed the presence of hydrocodone in the plaintiff’s system, related to the medication she had taken for pain the night before.
That’s when the trouble started, and formed the basis of the wrongful termination lawsuit. The plaintiff was asked for the prescription for the hydrocodone. Hancock indicated it was an older prescription, for which she failed to keep the original copy and would need seven days for replacement paperwork to be sent from her healthcare provider.
Rather than place the plaintiff on unpaid leave until the paperwork for hydrocodone was secured, a human resources manager for the defendant terminated Hancock for violation of drug policy.
The trial court found that Time Warner had failed to accommodate Hancock’s disability, and the jury awarded damages. The appeals court reversed that decision, in part, because in the appellate panel’s view Hancock had failed to inform her supervisor at the time that the disability that served as the foundation for her wrongful termination lawsuit in California was due to her back injury.
The appellate panel also ruled that her termination was founded upon the plaintiff’s inability to immediately procure the prescribing documents for the hydrocodone, and not due to her disability.
“Even though the jury found TWC knew Hancock had a qualifying disability, it did not fire her because of the disability. As a result, Time Warner did not engage in disability discrimination and did not wrongfully terminate Hancock,” the decision said.
The wrongfully terminated case is Hancock v. Time Warner Cable Services LLC et al., Case No. B266532, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.