In U.S. District Court

Searsport woman sues Hamilton Marine for employment discrimination

Company files motion to dismiss
By Tanya Mitchell | Dec 24, 2013
Photo by: Tanya Mitchell

Bangor — A Searsport woman is suing her former employer, Hamilton Marine Inc., on her claim that the company forced her to take involuntary leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and then terminated her on accusations that she falsified her medical records.

The plaintiff, Pauline Knowles, of Searsport, is seeking unspecified damages including compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, front pay, attorney's fees, interest and other costs.

According to the Oct. 8 complaint filed at U.S. District Court in Bangor, Knowles' attorney Suzanne Russell, Knowles started working full time for Hamilton Marine in September 1994 and was terminated from her duties by way of a termination letter dated Oct. 22, 2012.

In her complaint, Knowles stated she was injured July 12, 2012, while working in the warehouse. On that day, the company's Human Resource Officer, Jenna Bowden, required Knowles to see the company doctor at Coastal Occupational Health and Wellness Services. After the doctor examined Knowles injury, according to the complaint, the physician released Knowles to work on "modified duty," conducting duties with one hand as her left hand was fitted with a splint.

On July 16, 2012, the company reduced Knowles' hours to six hours of regular time and required to take two hours per day of FMLA time. The plaintiff continued to work in the warehouse stocking shelves.

On Aug. 9, 2012, Knowles' complaint stated Bowden informed her there were no jobs available that would allow Knowles to continue working with one hand. According to the complaint, Knowles had answered telephones and operated the cash register prior to her injury.

At that time, Knowles stated, her employer told her she must use her FMLA leave and stop working full time — the medical leave was set to end September 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, and on Oct. 19, she provided the record from her latest doctor's appointment to her employer.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Knowles stated, the company issued her a letter of termination "accusing her of falsifying medical records."

In October 2012, the complaint stated, Knowles was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, necessitating surgery by a hand specialist.

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.

"Defendant violated the FMLA ... by interfering with the plaintiff's right to use FMLA leave as necessary when defendant forced her to take unnecessary, involuntary FMLA leave when plaintiff did not have a 'serious health condition' that precluded her from working, thereby exhausting plaintiff's leave necessary for her hand surgery," stated the complaint.

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.

"Defendant refused to provide reasonable accommodations for plaintiff's disability by permitting her to perform modified duty for which she was willing and able to perform, such as telephone and cashier duties, in violation of the ADA," stated the complaint.

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 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 statement 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."

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