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Smith v. As America, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 14, 2016

Jamie Smith Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
AS America, Inc., doing business as American Standard Brands Defendant-Appellant Jamie Smith Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
AS America, Inc., doing business as American Standard Brands Defendant-Appellee Jamie Smith Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
AS America, Inc., doing business as American Standard Brands Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: December 17, 2015

         Appeals from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Joplin

          Before MURPHY, BENTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         AS America, Inc. d/b/a American Standard Brands (ASB) denied Thomas Smith's request for intermittent Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave and fired him after he missed work. Following a bench trial, the district court found ASB violated Smith's rights under the FMLA and awarded Smith actual and liquidated damages, attorney's fees, expenses, and prejudgment interest. ASB appeals the court's decision regarding liability and its awards of liquidated damages and attorney's fees.[1] Jamie Smith[2] cross-appeals the district court's finding limiting the amount of her damages under the after-acquired evidence doctrine. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm the district court's decision regarding liability, liquidated damages, and attorney's fees. Because we find the district court made a clearly erroneous factual finding as to ASB under the after-acquired evidence doctrine, however, we reverse and remand the court's decision limiting damages.

         I. Background

         Thomas Smith worked at the ASB plant in Nevada, Missouri. His job required him to manually lift porcelain toilet bowls, tanks, urinals, and sinks on and off the kiln and refire carts. The bowls weighed an average of fifty pounds and the tanks weighed around twenty-five pounds. His shift ran from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Friday through Tuesday, and he was off on Wednesdays and Thursdays. ASB employees are fired when they reach 8 absences in a twelve-month period under ASB's no-fault attendance policy.

         In January 2011, Smith missed three days of work due to sinusitis and lower back pain. He went to an urgent care clinic and was prescribed muscle relaxants and advised to get physical therapy. Smith applied for FMLA leave and submitted a certification form that had been completed by a nurse practioner at the clinic. Smith's absentee records for January 9 through 11 contain a notation "FMLA per C. Morris"[3]and his absence was recorded as FMLA leave.

         On Friday, February 5, 2011, before his shift started, Smith hurt his back plowing snow. That night, he reported to work but left early due to back pain. On Saturday, February 6, and Sunday, February 7, Smith called ASB to report he could not work but that his absence should be covered by the intermittent FMLA leave granted in January.

         Smith went to the urgent care clinic on Monday, February 7, and saw a nurse practitioner. He was advised to take anti-inflammatory drugs and the muscle relaxants he had been prescribed in January and to get physical therapy. He was also given a note from the nurse practioner to submit to ASB. The note stated: "Patient seen in clinic 2/7/11. Please excuse from 2/8/11 & needs FMLA form to be completed for lumbar strain." Smith called ASB before his next shift started to report that he would be absent and that the absence should be covered by the intermittent FMLA leave approved in January.

         On Tuesday, February 8, 2011, Smith went to the ASB plant to submit the note from the nurse practioner. Jackie Nall[4] met with him and gave him documents assessing him three points for leaving his February 6 shift early and missing his February 7 and 8 shifts. She also gave him a document dated February 8, 2011, that purportedly denied his January request for FMLA leave. ASB then fired Smith for having 8 absences.

         On February 11, 2011, Smith submitted a new application for FMLA leave and an FMLA certification form filled out by the clinic nurse practitioner. The certification form noted Smith had been prescribed muscle relaxants for a thoracolumbar spasm and referred for physical therapy. ASB did not request any additional information from Smith concerning his February 11 FMLA application but did not grant him FMLA leave and did not reinstate him. Smith then sued ASB, claiming wrongful interference with his FMLA rights.

         At Thomas Smith's deposition, ASB learned that he had been arrested and jailed on July 13, 2011. The parties disputed when Smith was released from jail and how many absences he would have accrued as a result of being jailed had he still been employed at ASB. Following trial, the court found ASB proved that Smith had not been released from jail until July 20, 2011, and thus would have reached 8 absences on July 20, 2011. The court awarded Jamie Smith $13, 865.84 in lost pay up to July 20, 2011, and $13, 865.84 in liquidated damages. The court also granted Smith $159, 944.66 in attorney's fees and costs.

         II. Discussion

         The FMLA entitles an eligible employee to twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period for a "serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee." 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). To succeed on a claim of FMLA interference, an employee must show she was eligible for FMLA leave, the employer knew she needed FMLA leave, and the employer denied her an FMLA benefit to which she was entitled. Hasenwinkel v. Mosaic, 809 F.3d 427, 432 (8th Cir. 2015). FMLA interference includes "refusing ...


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