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Chase v. United States Postal Service

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 14, 2016

ROBERT CHASE, Plaintiff, Appellant,


          Lori A. Jodoin, with whom Rodgers, Powers & Schwartz LLP, were on brief, for appellant.

          Christine J. Wichers, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Carmen M. Ortiz, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellees.

          David Conforto and Conforto Law Group, on brief for Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

          John Pagliaro and Martin J. Newhouse on brief for New England Legal Foundation and Associated Industries of Massachusetts as amicus curiae.

          Before Barron, Selya, and Stahl, Circuit Judges.

          STAHL, Circuit Judge.

         The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows an employee up to twelve weeks of leave, in a twelvemonth period, for a serious medical condition. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). Under the FMLA, an employee's absence from work due to a personal health concern, or that of a spouse, child, or parent, is protected from interference and retaliation by his employer. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a).

         Appellant Robert Chase alleged that his employer, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and supervisor Michael King, terminated him from the Brookline, Massachusetts Post Office in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. He brought interference and retaliation claims under 29 U.S.C. § 2615, arguing that King and USPS violated the FMLA by firing him while he was out of work on protected leave.

         Following a bench trial, the district court held that King and the USPS did not violate the FMLA on the ground that King, as the USPS decisionmaker, did not have the requisite knowledge of the designation of Chase's medical leave necessary to hold defendants liable under the FMLA. This appeal followed, and we AFFIRM.

         I. Facts & Background

         Chase worked as a letter carrier at the USPS Brookline Post Office for nearly fourteen years. During this time, Chase never received a negative performance review nor was he subject to any disciplinary action. King, manager of the Brookline Post Office, supervised Chase from 2005 until his termination on September 30, 2011.

         A. Accident and Leave of Absence

         The accident leading to Chase's leave and allegedly contributing to his termination occurred on July 21, 2010, when an elderly woman fell asleep at the wheel of her car and struck Chase's vehicle while he was parked during his lunch break. Chase was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a serious shoulder injury including damage to his rotator cuff. King personally went to the scene of the accident to observe the severity of the accident and injury and to prepare a report of the incident. King's report noted Chase's shoulder injury.

         Following his injury, Chase applied for workers' compensation, despite being discouraged from doing so by King. This request was approved. Chase also applied for and was granted FMLA leave. USPS mailed a Designation/FMLA Approval Notice to Chase and to King which stated that "[Chase's] FMLA leave request is approved. All leave taken for this reason will be designated as FMLA leave."[1] Pursuant to USPS policy, Chase opted for a continuation of pay and was fully compensated for the first 45 days of his leave, after which he received workers' compensation benefits amounting to two-thirds of his salary, tax-free, plus health insurance. Chase's concurrent FMLA leave lasted from July 21, 2010 to October 12, 2010, but he remained on medical leave until September 30, 2011, when he was terminated.

         B. Workplace Tensions Between King and Chase

         On several occasions, both before and during the course of these events, King publicly mocked Chase and accused him of faking injuries. In September of 2006, Chase had injured his knee while on the job and subsequently missed a week of work. At that time, in apparent response, King made an announcement over the Brookline Post Office loudspeaker, "[w]ill Bob Chase, the injury fraud specialist, please report to the office." In August of 2010, a month after Chase's motor vehicle accident at issue in this case, King posted a job opening on the office bulletin board advertising a position for an "injury compensation specialist." King then made an announcement mocking Chase: "[T]here's a job posted on the bulletin board for an[] injury compensation specialist since you're the biggest fraud when it comes to injuries." Brookline Post Office employee Maria Constantino testified that she heard King say that Chase was ...

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