Court Upholds Worker’s Claim Under Maine Medical Leave Act

December 22, 2006

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a Maine car salesman who says he was unjustly fired while taking medical leave that should have been protected by state law.

The 1st U.S Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday overturned a lower court ruling that said Lee Holding Co., doing business as Lee Auto Malls, legally terminated Kenneth Rucker last year. The court said Rucker deserved protection under Maine’s Family Medical Leave Act.

Rucker worked as car salesman for Lee for five years before leaving the company and returning five years later as a full-time employee in June 2004.

Seven months after rejoining the company, Rucker left Lee for medical reasons after rupturing a disc in his back. He received medical treatment but because of pain did not work, according to court documents. On March 7, 2005, Rucker was terminated.

Rucker filed a suit claiming he was unjustly fired for taking leave.

In his U.S. District Court suit, Rucker cited the Family Medical Leave Act, which says a person must have 12 months employment to qualify for leave. He said the law allowed him to combine his previous work time with the more recent stint to qualify for the 12-month minimum.

Lee disputed that interpretation of the state law. It also argued that Rucker had no “continuing connection” with the company, such as ongoing benefits, and therefore could not rely on his previous employment to meet the 12-month requirement.

The District Court granted Lee’s motion to dismiss Rucker’s suit, saying his previous service could not be combined with the more recent period of employment to meet the 12-month employment qualification for medical leave. The lower court noted a lack of legislative history on the matter in issuing its decision.

The appeals court disagreed, although it conceded that “Neither interpretation of the regulation is unreasonable.”

“We hold that the (Maine law) itself is ambiguous as to whether previous periods of employment count toward the 12-month requirement, but regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Labor … establish that the previous periods of employment do count,” the court said.

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