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Employee’s Uncorroborated Statements Not Enough to Survive Summary Judgment

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Attorney Harrison Oldham

 

 

On April 11, 2022, the court in Buckmaster v. The National Railroad Passenger Corp. d/b/a Amtrak, granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the employee’s claims of disability discrimination, interference under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), failure to accommodate a disability, and retaliation.

 

Before dismissing the employee’s claims, the court addressed whether the employee had offered any evidence of discrimination or retaliation beyond his own speculative beliefs and personal disagreement with his employer’s reason for terminating his employment. Finding no such evidence in the record, the court dismissed the employee’s claims.

 

Background

Keith Buckmaster used to work for Amtrak as a substation electrician. During the term of his employment, Mr. Buckmaster was in a car accident and suffered injuries to his back, neck, and knee. As a result of the accident and lingering pain, Buckmaster requested reassignment to a less physically demanding role. Amtrak agreed, and Buckmaster worked in this new position until July 2015, when he applied for and secured a position as a senior technical trainer.

 

In March 2017, Buckmaster’s performance began to suffer. As a result, Amtrak provided Buckmaster a documented counseling. After that, on May 16, 2017, Amtrak provided Buckmaster with a final warning, informing him that failure to improve could result in further disciplinary action, including the termination of his employment.

 

On August 1, 2017, the director of training and development for the engineering department started an email chain to discuss Buckmaster’s work performance. In turn, Buckmaster’s direct supervisor documented several occasions on which Buckmaster had scheduled training classes without his supervisor’s approval, dismissed those classes early, or left work entirely without proper notification. On September 29, 2017, Buckmaster incorrectly informed a trainee class that a ten-foot ladder required fall protection, which confused Amtrak’s senior management and ultimately prompted the training and development director to initiate the process of terminating Buckmaster’s employment.

 

On Monday, October 2, 2017, Buckmaster called out of work and began a 58-day leave of absence. On October 17, 2017, Buckmaster filled out a request for FMLA leave, which was retroactive to October 2, 2017. Buckmaster did not provide a specific medical reason for the request other than “short term disability.” The leave management team activated Buckmaster’s short-term disability package. Amtrak also sent Buckmaster an FMLA eligibility notice and “Certification of Health Care Provider” form to complete with his request for FMLA leave. Despite receiving several extensions, Buckmaster never had his healthcare provider complete the form. Thus, on November 30, 2017, Amtrak denied Buckmaster’s FMLA request for failure to provide the completed documentation and terminated his employment the next day.

 

Analysis

During its review, the court rejected Amtrak’s arguments that Buckmaster was not legally disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, the court still granted summary judgment on Buckmaster’s disability discrimination claim after determining that Buckmaster failed to meet his prima facie case. In particular, the court found that Buckmaster had not offered any evidence, “beyond his self-serving deposition and discovery responses,” that he was performing his job at a level that met Amtrak’s legitimate expectations or that could raise an inference of discrimination. The court stated that even if Buckmaster could offer such admissible evidence, the written counseling statement for tardiness and dishonesty and the final written warning issued after Buckmaster failed to improve his performance provided undisputed evidence of Amtrak’s “nondiscriminatory reason for his discharge.”

 

Further, the court noted that the undisputed evidence showed that Buckmaster’s employment termination occurred after failing to provide the requested medical documentation to support his paid leave of absence. Similarly, Amtrak’s email correspondence regarding Buckmaster’s lackluster performance sufficiently refuted his self-serving allegations that Amtrak’s actions had been a pretext for discrimination.

 

The court also dismissed Buckmaster’s failure-to-accommodate claim, having determined that he had not offered evidence of the reasonableness or necessity of the accommodations he requested. Finally, the court held that Buckmaster could not sustain his FMLA interference claim because he failed to provide the required certification to support his request for FMLA leave, even after several extensions. As a result, Buckmaster never triggered Amtrak’s duty to provide him FMLA leave.

 

Takeaways For Employers

Although Buckmaster’s failure to meet his burden of proof resulted in the court granting summary judgment against him, this decision highlights the importance of timely completing and maintaining documentation addressing employee performance issues. The decision also underscores the importance of warning employees – in writing – of possible disciplinary action for failing to submit required FMLA paperwork promptly.

 


 

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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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