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Court: jury could reasonably find that Hannaford fired manager due to his age, disabilities, and need for medical leave

Last week, a federal judge held that a jury could reasonably find that Hannaford fired one of the Maine Employee Rights Group’s (MERG) clients because of his age, disabilities, and need for medical leave.  MERG’s client worked for Hannaford for over thirty years and served as the Produce Manager at the Waldoboro Hannaford store when Hannaford fired him.  At the time of his termination, he was 58 years old; suffered from heart disease, knee and back impairments, and a shoulder injury; and had repeatedly needed medical leaves due to his medical conditions.  Hannaford fired MERG’s client on the day he returned from a medical leave.

Before MERG’s client went out on medical leave, the Waldoboro store was planning to undergo a major remodel and expansion which would increase both the sales volume of the store and the stress on the store’s employees.  The store manager asked MERG’s client whether he could “handle” the stress associated with the expansion but there was evidence that he did not ask other managers in the store—who were younger and not disabled—this same question.

While MERG’s client was out on medical leave, Hannaford claims it received information indicating that MERG’s client was not complying with food safety policies relating to the preparation of cut fruit.  Hannaford launched a food safety investigation and the store manager and an associate relations manager met with MERG’s client in connection with that investigation on the day he returned from medical leave.  During this meeting, the store manager claims MERG’s client admitted that he knowingly violated food safety policy and that is why Hannaford claims it fired him.  MERG’s client denies that he admitted to violating policy and says that no one even asked him if he thought he was violating food safety policy.

The associate relations manager, who attended the meeting with MERG’s client and the store manager, does not recall MERG’s client admitting he violated policy.  Hannaford normally got a written statement from an employee who was under investigation but no one got such a statement from MERG’s client.  MERG’s client says that if anyone had asked him whether he complied with food safety policy, he would have said that he did comply.  MERG’s client had handled cut fruit the same way for years, with no complaints from anyone, and the food safety policy did not expressly prohibit him from handling cut fruit the way he had.

The court also found that a jury could reasonably find that Hannaford’s treatment of other employees who violated food safety policies is evidence of discrimination against MERG’s client.  A Food Safety Specialist for Hannaford testified that he did not know of any Hannaford employees being disciplined for food safety violations even though there were stores where repeated critical food safety violations occurred.

This case is set for a jury trial later this year.  As we reported last week, MERG also has another disability discrimination case against Hannaford which is set for trial later this year, too.