Michigan Police Department Declines to Rehire Former Deputy Fired While Negotiating a Return to Work

By: Loyd Willaford and Sarah Burke

In Williams v. Office of Chief Judge of Cook Cnty., a former African American juvenile probation officer in Illinois, sued her department for racial discrimination and workers compensation retaliation after she was terminated while on medical leave. The department argued that the decision was based on its belief that the officer had abandoned her job. The Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, and granted the department summary judgment on both claims.

Paula Williams had worked at the Juvenile Probation Department since 1995. In March 2010, a co-worker yanked open a door Williams was holding and caused her to injure her shoulder. Williams requested medical leave, which was granted, and applied for workers compensation. In 2011, after a medical evaluation revealed she could work, The County sent Williams a letter asking her to return to work by August 2, 2011. The letter warned her that failure to return to work would be considered an implied resignation, which was grounds for termination.

However, at the same time, Williams’s attorney was negotiating a settlement with the department’s attorney. Those negotiations included a proposed return to work date of September 6, 2011, and Williams believed this to be when she should return to work. After not returning on August 2, Williams was sent a termination letter by the HR manager—who had no knowledge of the settlement talks.

The Seventh Circuit first discussed Williams’s workers compensation retaliation claim. The Court noted that:

firing someone based on incomplete or inaccurate information is legally insufficient to make out a retaliatory discharge claim—rather, a plaintiff must provide evidence that her employer was motivated to fire her for exercising her workers’ compensation rights.

Because Williams had failed to demonstrate that the HR manager had any knowledge of her September return date, and instead was only motivated to fire her due to perceived job abandonment, Williams could not succeed on her claim. The Court also held that Williams had failed to prove her racial discrimination claim. Williams had pointed to a white co-worker who were not terminated after extending his leave. However, the Seventh Circuit found this distinguishable because the white co-worker had kept the department informed of his extensions and return date, something that Williams had failed to do.

This case illustrates the importance of clear communications in writing with an employer when negotiating things like return to work dates.  The lack of clear communication allowed the department to successfully argue that it was unaware of the separate return-to-work negotiation when it fired Williams. This case also illustrates the importance of developing evidence of motive beyond mere notice that one is in a protected class. The Court here correctly noted that it is not illegal to fire someone who has taken worker’s compensation leave; it is illegal to fire someone in retaliation for taking the leave.   To get this question to a jury, Williams needed some evidence that the termination was motivated by her taking leave or some other illegal reason. In the absence of such evidence, the Court affirmed the dismissal of her case.  

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