Searsport woman adds workplace-caused health issue to initial complaint
Bangor — A Searsport woman who filed suit against her former employer has amended her original complaint over the company's handling of a workplace injury to include an additional allegation that she suffered breathing problems due to the work environment prior to incurring her injury.
Court records at U.S. District Court in Bangor outline the latest allegations from the plaintiff, Pauline Knowles, against her former employer, Hamilton Marine, Inc.
In an amended complaint, dated Jan. 8, Knowles, through her attorneys Brett Baber and Suzanne Russell, stated that prior to injuring her wrist July 12, 2012, she suffered health issues related to hives and respiratory distress "as a result of the work environment." Knowles stated in the amended complaint that she had to seek medical attention from the company physician as a result of that distress on May 13, 2012, though the complaint did not specify exactly what in the work environment caused Knowles to have that reaction.
The next day, stated the complaint, the company provided Knowles with documents relating to the Family Medical Leave Act, which Knowles completed upon receipt. After that, the complaint stated the company required Knowles to use her paid time off for appointments and restrictions pending further information from the company's physician. On June 13, 2012, the workplace doctor placed Knowles on work restrictions that required Knowles work no more than six hours per day, that she not lift more than 20 pounds and that she take a 15 minute break after each hour of work.
Court records stated that on June 26, 2012, Knowles reported a "strong smell" in the fiberglass room and that she closed the door to that neighboring room because she "felt her throat closing up." Another employee later discovered someone had spray-painted the inside of the trash can in the room, causing the odor.
According to Knowles' complaint, Knowles had a recurrence of respiratory distress and hives on that same day, necessitating another visit with the company doctor.
"On June 26, 2012, [the] defendant's company doctor treated [Knowles] for respiratory distress and hives and diagnosed [her] with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands," stated the complaint.
The physician recommended physical therapy to address the carpal tunnel syndrome at that time, court records state.
On June 27, 2012, the company's Chief Operating Officer Steven Greabert issued an email reprimanding Knowles for her lack of productiveness the previous day and indicated "that the company may have to reevaluate their ability to accommodate [Knowles'] restrictions." This email came after a June 21, 2012 email from the company Human Resources Manager Jenna Bowden, who reminded Knowles she was limited to working six hours per day and noted that Knowles had worked 15-20 minutes longer than she was permitted to do.
On June 29, 2012, one day after Knowles requested a copy of her personnel file, Greabert reportedly sent her an email commending Knowles on her work on June 28, 2012, adding that the company "should not have a problem accommodating" her work restrictions.
Then, on July 12, 2012, Knowles alleged she injured her wrist while pushing a loaded cart in the company warehouse and that she immediately notified Bowden of the injury. At that time the company required Knowles to see the company doctor again, and Knowles went to see the doctor that same day.
At that time the physician indicated Knowles could conduct "modified duty," completing tasks that could be done with one arm and hand. Knowles was scheduled to see the doctor for a second visit July 27, 2012. On the day of the reported injury, court records show Bowden completed a report in which she stated Knowles sustained the injury during "normal job duties."
A July 16, 2012, letter to Knowles from Bowden stated Knowles was not eligible for FMLA because though her health conditions "currently limit your work ability ... your hives and respiratory distress ... do not constitute a disability as described by the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the Maine Human Rights Act." The following day, the complaint stated the company placed Knowles on phone sales for four hours per day until her next doctor's appointment later that month.
After seeing the doctor again July 27, 2012, Knowles was released to continue with "modified duty" and the doctor determined there was no permanent impairment expected. The physician estimated the length of treatment, including occupational therapy, would be between four and six weeks.
The complaint stated that in August, Bowden called Knowles during her workday and told her the company had no work she could do with one arm or hand, and sent Knowles home, though Knowles stated she was willing and able to continue working the phones.
According to court records, Bowden told Knowles she must leave work full time and that she must use her FMLA leave time, which was set to expire Sept. 25, 2012.
"[The] plaintiff complied with the forced leave, but she became depressed, sought medical attention and fell behind on her bills," stated the complaint.
On Aug. 10, 2012, Knowles stated the company doctor referred her to a hand specialist and scheduled an appointment in October. Knowles relayed that information to Bowden, where the appointment was after her FMLA leave was to expire and at Bowden's request, Knowles stated she sought a leave of absence on Sept. 19, 2012. Knowles' complaint stated she received no response from the company at that time.
Correspondence to the company from the physician dated Sept. 21, 2012 indicated Knowles required continued evaluation and treatment and that she would be seeing an orthopedic specialist on Sept. 25, 2012. A short time later, Knowles filed a worker's compensation claim.
After an Oct. 19, 2012 doctor's appointment, the complaint stated Knowles provided the company with records of that appointment. On Oct. 22, 2012, Greabert gave Knowles a letter of termination accusing her of falsifying Sept. 21, 2012 and Oct. 19, 2012 medical records by "checking the 'work-related' box and the 'one hand/one arm work only' box" on those records.
In her initial complaint, dated Oct. 8, 2013, Knowles did not make note of her hives and respiratory distress but detailed her allegations specific to the wrist injury, at which time she stated she was not diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome until October 2012.
Knowles is seeking unspecified damages including compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, front pay, attorney's fees, interest and other costs.
In count one of Knowles' claim, which alleged the company's interference with FMLA, Knowles stated she was able to perform the essential elements of her job "or in the alternative was willing and able to answer telephones and work the cash register." The complaint further stated Knowles did not have a health condition that precluded her from working a modified duty, and that Knowles' FMLA leave time was exhausted due to the actions of the company.
In count two of the complaint, which alleged the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the complaint stated if Knowles did have a "serious health condition" as a result of her hand injury, such injury constituted a disability under ADA. It further stated the company regarded Knowles as disabled under definitions of ADA.
Count three of the complaint accused the company of committing employment discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act based on conduct described in the previous count alleging violation of ADA, and count four alleged the company interfered with Knowles rights under the Maine FMLA.
Through its attorney, Shiloh Theberge, Hamilton Marine filed a motion in December to dismiss all of Knowles' claims.
"Plaintiff's claims under the ADA and the MHRA should be dismissed because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies — i.e., she failed to file the required charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the 'EEOC') or the Maine Human Rights Commission (the 'MHRC') prior to filing this lawsuit," stated Theberge in his brief dated Dec. 20. "Plaintiff's claim under the FMLA and the MFMLA should be dismissed because (a) under the FMLA and MFMLA, Hamilton Marine is not required to accommodate plaintiff's inability to perform the essential functions of her job by allowing her to perform alternate jobs, (b) the First Circuit [Court] has not yet recognized a claim for 'involuntary leave' under the FMLA or the MFMLA and, even if it did, Hamilton Marine did not deny plaintiff any type of leave whatsoever, and therefore could not have 'interfered' with her rights under the FMLA or the MFMLA, and (c) plaintiff's claims that she did not have a 'serious health condition' as defined by the FMLA or the MFMLA, and therefore is not entitled to protection under either of those statutes."
Baber and Russell urged the court to deny the motion to dismiss in a memorandum dated Jan. 8, in which the attorneys assert Knowles may be entitled to some financial relief in addition to the reasons they previously offered in favor of moving the case forward.
"Although [Knowles] agrees she did not file her disability claim with the Maine Human Rights Commission before filing suit, [state statute] allows her to seek back pay, reinstatement and/or front pay without the need for exhaustion of administrative remedies," stated the memorandum.
207-338-3333 ext. 109
Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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