A New Jersey employee of a package delivery service was injured on the job after nearly 20 years of work. Initially, her orthopedist repeatedly recommended lifting restrictions, believing that she would never fully recover from the injury.
But the employer required that all workers in her job lift at least 70 pounds. That started a lengthy dispute that still has not been resolved.
What happened. “Bell” started with UPS in 1986 and injured her neck and shoulders late in 2005. Both UPS’s doctor and her own recommended lifting restrictions, and Bell was given a brief (29-day) assignment.
When UPS wanted her back in her former job, she stopped working and sought workers’ compensation benefits. In March 2006, her doctor said her recovery had stopped at 70 percent and tried to impose a 10-pound restriction on overhead lifting.
She went back to work, but UPS could give her an assignment for only 5 days, recommending she apply for permanent disability. Instead, she asked her union’s help with reinstatement. She consulted a different orthopedist, who furnished a June 2006 lifting restriction of 50 pounds.
UPS insisted on 70, and the doctor revised his opinion up to 70 in an August note. But UPS was unhappy with both notes, saying they were ambiguous and contradictory—and that the faxes of them it had received were partly illegible.
Bell sued UPS in federal district court, charging age, race, and disability discrimination. She also submitted copies of the two notes.
UPS and the judge demanded the originals, and when they weren’t forthcoming after 3 days, the judge declared a mistrial and dismissed Bell’s case with prejudice—meaning she couldn’t sue again. She appealed that ruling to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
What the court said. The district judge had accused Bell of “spoliating” evidence, but appellate judges weren’t so sure. She belatedly told her attorney that she had the original notes at home and retrieved them, but the judge wouldn’t wait.
Appellate judges surmised that it hadn’t been immediately clear to either Bell or her attorney that UPS wanted the originals. They also questioned whether spoliation had actually happened, saying that Bell had neither destroyed nor altered the original notes.
So they sent the case back to the district court for reconsideration, terming the judge’s dismissal, especially with prejudice, hasty and punitive. Bull v. UPS, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 10-4339 (2012).
Point to remember: We wonder if UPS made it clear to the union that it was demanding the original notes, but it apparently didn’t, or she would have provided them.
Filed Under: HR
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