Cristain v. Hunter Building and Manufacturing

Luis Cristain sustained an injury at work. His employer, Hunter Buildings and Manufacturing, fired him soon after he fell from scaffolding. Eight days later and a few days after filing a claim for worker’s compensation benefits, the employer moved him to a position where he would be supervised by Kevin Edmonds. Mr. Edmonds had already been scrutinizing Mr. Cristain’s performance. Now, he would have direct supervision.

The job was a new job, which did not otherwise exist before. Cristain went from being a general helper to a “Flow Monitor,” a job for which he had no training or experience. Immediately, Edmonds accused Cristain of taking unnecessary breaks. Three days later, the supervisor gave the worker a written warning for allegedly not picking up some paperwork. Mr. Edmonds investigated the scaffolding incident and found Cristain at fault.

Two weeks after the accident, Mr. Edmonds met with Mr. Cristain about the scaffolding fall and fired him. Mr. Edmonds claims Mr. Cristain became loud and profane at the meeting.

Mr. Cristain filed suit for worker’s compensation retaliation and age discrimination. The district court denied the motion for summary judgment. At trial, the court initially denied the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. But, when the employer renewed the motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court granted the motion in regard to the worker’s compensation claim. It let the age discrimination claim proceed to the jury. The jury found for the defendant on the age claim.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit panel noted that proximity in time can support a showing of worker’s compensation retaliation. The Texas caselaw notes proximity of weeks or months will support a filing of retaliation. Here, Mr. Cristain was fired two weeks after his injury. That is a “stark temporal proximity,” said the appellate court. The employer did not follow its own internal procedures for disciplining a worker. It skipped steps. Supervisor Edmonds openly suggested Cristain did not truly suffer an injury. During trial, the employee presented evidence of other workers who submitted worker’s compensation claims. Of eleven such workers, two were fired within 30 days of the injury and four others were terminated within 90 days of their injuries. Too, the employer’s explanation for the termination shifted over time. These facts amounted to “considerable” evidence supporting his claim, said the court.

The panel reversed the granting of the motion for judgment as a matter of law in regard to worker’s compensation reprisal claim. The Court then ordered a new trial regarding that claim. See the opinion in Cristain v. Hunter Building and Manufacturing, LP, No. 17-20667 (5th Cir. 11/14/2018) here.