Haynes v. Rhone-Poulenc, Inc.

Decision Date14 July 1999
Docket NumberNo. 25366.,25366.
Citation206 W.Va. 18,521 S.E.2d 331
PartiesNatalie HAYNES, Plaintiff below, Appellee, v. RHONE-POULENC, INC., a foreign corporation, Defendant below, Appellant.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Dissenting Opinion of Justice Maynard July 16, 1999.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Justice Workman July 16, 1999.

P. Rodney Jackson, Esq., Lonnie C. Simmons, Esq., Charleston, West Virginia, Attorney for Appellee.

William E. Robinson, Esq., Joseph M. Price, Esq., Robinson & McElwee, Charleston, West Virginia, Attorneys for Appellant. STARCHER, Chief Justice:

In the instant case, we affirm an order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County that awarded back pay, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney fees to Ms. Natalie Haynes, for her disability discrimination claim under West Virginia's Human Rights Act. We hold (1) that a person who is temporarily unable to work is protected by the provisions of our Human Rights Act that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in connection with their employment; (2) that a leave of absence may be a required reasonable accommodation for such a person; and (3) that a jury has the right to award punitive damages under the Human Rights Act.

I. Facts and Background
A. Factual Summary

Natalie Haynes, the plaintiff below and the appellee in the instant appeal, began working as a chemical laboratory technician in 1981 for Rhone-Poulenc, Inc., the defendant below and appellant. The plaintiff married in 1991, and she became pregnant in April of 1996. Prior to her pregnancy, Ms. Haynes had suffered for some time from migraines and hypertension, and she took medication for these conditions.

In June of 1996, the plaintiff learned that she was pregnant, and so notified the defendant. At her doctor's suggestion she requested a temporary work assignment change, so as to avoid contact with chemicals and reduce her hours from 12 per day to 8 per day, during her pregnancy. The defendant agreed to the change.

Soon thereafter, the plaintiff's doctor advised the plaintiff that due to her hypertension, the plaintiff's pregnancy was high-risk—for her and for her unborn child—and that the plaintiff should not continue to work at all during the remainder of her pregnancy.

In late June or early July of 1996, the plaintiff requested and was allowed to take leave from work, under a paid medical leave program that was generally available to the defendant's employees.1 The defendant understood that the plaintiff's request for medical leave was occasioned by the defendant's high-risk pregnancy. In connection with the plaintiff's request for disability benefits while she was off on leave, the plaintiff's doctor submitted a form to the defendant stating that the plaintiff's anticipated return to work date was "3/1/97??" The plaintiff explained at trial that the March date reflected about a 2-month wait after her intended due date—but that the due date was uncertain, in part because her medical condition might lead to an early birth.

The plaintiff was an experienced, well-paid, skilled employee, who had consistently good work performance ratings. Her job was a desirable one. She had 15 years' seniority. There was no evidence that the plaintiff had ever suggested that she did not intend to return to work for the defendant following her pregnancy.2

The defendant's medical leave policy as set forth in the defendant's written personnel policies entitled the plaintiff, as an employee of many years' longevity, to "short-term disability" medical leave for up to 6 months—at full salary and benefits. Thereafter, the plaintiff was eligible for continued "long-term disability" medical leave, but at a reduced salary. The written policy also stated that "when possible" an employee's job would be kept open for them while on short-term disability benefits; but that after an employee was on long-term disability status, "business conditions may demand that the position be filled."3

The plaintiff was not advised, when she began her leave, of this "we may fill your position after six months if business conditions demand it" provision in the defendant's medical leave policy. The defendant's counsel conceded at trial that the first time the plaintiff learned of this provision was in mid-December of 1996, shortly before her child was born. The defendant offered no evidence as to when, if ever, the defendant had filled a position of a disabled person at the expiration of the person's 6-month short-term disability benefit period.

After the plaintiff began her medical leave, the defendant filled her position with a temporary worker, a Mr. Fuller. He proved to be a good employee, and in November or December of 1996, Dr. Jaleh Abedi, a senior chemist in the laboratory where the plaintiff worked and a supervisor of the plaintiff, asked the human resources division to hire Mr. Fuller as a permanent employee. Dr. Abedi was told that this was not possible, because the plaintiff was on medical leave and her job was being kept open for her.

Dr. Abedi was a key player in the circumstances that led to the defendant's ultimate decision, on January 9, 1997, not to keep the plaintiff's position open for her any longer.

The evidence at trial—viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff (who prevailed before the jury and is thus entitled to have the evidence so viewed) tended to show that Dr. Abedi was unsympathetic and hostile to the plaintiff. Specifically, the evidence tended to show that Dr. Abedi was intolerant and disdainful of the plaintiff's medical conditions, of the plaintiff's requests for accommodation due to those conditions, and of the plaintiff's decision to take an extended medical leave in connection with her pregnancy.4

In November of 1996, the defendant sent the plaintiff a letter advising her that her short-term disability benefits would expire in January, and enclosing forms for her to fill out and return—to continue her insurance coverage and receive reduced salary payments.

The plaintiff and her doctor filled out the forms and returned them to the defendant. The form that the plaintiff completed indicated that she would return to work on "3-21-97;" her doctor gave an anticipated return date of "3/20/96" (sic—the "1996" was an error by the doctor in writing the year). The plaintiff also indicated a return date of "at least 3-21-97" on a credit disability insurance form that she sent to the defendant in November of 1996.5

On December 12, 1996, the defendant sent the plaintiff a letter acknowledging the receipt of the plaintiff's long-term disability paperwork. This letter for the first time advised the plaintiff of the provision in the medical leave policy wherein the defendant reserved the right to fill the plaintiff's position after her 6 months of short-term disability benefits expired.

The plaintiff received this letter in mid-December, on the very day that she was having a baby shower. The next morning she had a doctor's appointment. Because her blood pressure was fluctuating, she was sent to the hospital's triage monitoring unit for a battery of tests. She thereafter attended that unit for several days for monitoring, until a decision was made that her child must be delivered. On Christmas Eve, 1996, the plaintiff's child was born by Caesarean section. After the birth of her child, the plaintiff called her workplace manager, Okey Groves, to tell him about the birth. Neither the plaintiff nor her manager recalled at trial whether they had discussed the plaintiff's anticipated date for returning to work.6

Sometime in late December or early January of 1996, Dr. Abedi again asked that Mr. Fuller be made a full-time employee. On January 9, 1997, the 6-month "job protection" period in the medical leave policy having elapsed, Mr. Fuller was given permanent status, in accord with Dr. Abedi's wishes, effectively eliminating the plaintiff's job. The plaintiff, who still assumed that the defendant expected her to return to work in March of 1997, was not advised of this action.

In February of 1997, the plaintiff was released to return to work by her obstetrician, conditioned upon approval by her hypertension doctor. On March 1, 1997, that doctor agreed. The plaintiff reported to work on March 3, 1997. She first reported to the plant physician, as the defendant's medical leave policy required. The physician cleared the plaintiff, and she then went to the defendant's human resources division. She was told there that she had no job, because there were no positions open in her lab.

The plaintiff had been making $44,000 a year working for the defendant. As previously noted, her husband had quit his previous job to work at home, so as to better raise their child; and his work at home was less remunerative than his previous job, with no medical benefits. In the aftermath of the plaintiff losing her job with the defendant, she was unable to keep up payments on her family's medical insurance. She and her husband expended most of their $58,000 savings to pay off their debts and to live.

The plaintiff was unable to find comparable work after she left working for the defendant. She experienced emotional distress as a result of her job loss and unemployment.7

B. West Virginia Human Rights Action

The plaintiff filed suit and went to trial against the defendant on her claim under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va.Code, 5-11-1 et seq., ("the Act" or "the Human Rights Act") and specifically W.Va.Code, 5-11-9 [1992]8, which stated in pertinent part:

It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice ... [f]or any employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, hire, tenure, terms, conditions or privileges of employment if the individual is able and competent to perform the services required even if such individual is blind or handicapped[.]

We set forth in Syllabus Point 2 of ...

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