A Rhode Island employee who emigrated from Gambia to the United States in 2000 found a job in 2003 with a gas station operated by a division of Exxon Mobil. Beginning late in 2004, he encountered successive problems in getting to work. After that, he claimed the employer began cutting back on his hours. Did he have a case?
What happened. “Geoff” was initially hired as a part-time attendant at a Smithfield station run by Station Operators, but he continually worked at least 32 hours a week, entitling him to healthcare insurance and other benefits. When a new assistant manager was hired at the start of 2004, Geoff was made full-time. One day in December of that year, he failed to arrive for his shift, and didn’t call before, during, or after the shift. He later explained that his car had broken down and he was nowhere near a phone.
The next month, he was involved in a car accident and sustained a back injury, so he took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) until March of 2005. When he returned, the assistant manager consistently assigned him to work 32 hours a week rather than 40. That move caused Geoff to suffer a panic attack severe enough to send him to the emergency room. Two days later, he quit and sued for race, religion (he is Muslim), national origin, and sex discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation for his use of FMLA, and a host of other charges.
Just before and during the trial, Geoff gave up some of his charges, and the district judge ruled against him on his race and national origin bias claims. But a jury ruled in his favor on the FMLA charge, awarding him $20,000. Both sides appealed, and the case went to the 1st Circuit, which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
What the court said. The employer protested all along that it hadn’t cut Geoff’s hours all that much—he retained his benefits—that it had had to hire two additional employees because of Geoff’s leave, that all employees worked variable hours with shifts never guaranteed, and that Geoff was the highest-paid worker at the station.
Station operators also argued that the jury’s verdict on Geoff’s FMLA retaliation charge had been tainted by evidence presented on discrimination; appellate judges agreed and granted a new FMLA trial, which Geoff lost. And, judges agreed that his bias charges had no merit. Cham v. Station Operators, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, No. 11-1988 (2012).
Point to remember: Judges believed the station manager had diligently tried to accommodate Geoff’s absences and that Geoff had quit nevertheless.