22 July 2011
Washington, D.C. – Mayer Brown litigators captured a jury trial victory for client Foster Poultry Farms in a closely-watched employment case in the US District Court for the Eastern District of California, Fresno Division. Though brought by a lone employee, the case potentially had a much broader application to the workplace. Mayer Brown was called in to try this case just one month before trial. Washington, DC partner Carmine Zarlenga was the lead trial attorney and he was assisted by Chicago counsel Maritoni Kane.
After a two-week trial, a jury of five men and three women rendered a unanimous verdict in favor of Foster Farms. Maria Escriba, a worker in Foster’s Turlock, Calif., turkey plant, filed the case in 2009 after she was discharged for failing to show up for work or call within three days of her expected return date following a two-week vacation.
According to Foster Farms, Ms. Escriba violated the so-called “Three Day Rule” in the union contract covering all Foster Farms employees that are members of UCFW Local 588.
In the lawsuit, Ms. Escriba sought to characterize the vacation as qualifying for job protection under federal and state family medical leave laws. She asked her supervisor for a two-week vacation, which she confirmed with Foster Farms in writing on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007. But as she was walking out the door, Ms. Escriba mentioned to a superintendent that she planned to use the vacation to take care of an ill family member in Guatemala. Her attorneys argued that the verbal conversation converted the vacation into a job-protected medical leave of absence and that when Ms. Escriba failed to return to work as scheduled, automatic termination under the Three Day Rule was not justified.
In less than two hours of deliberations, the jury rejected all of Ms. Escriba’s federal and state law claims.
The jury found that Ms. Escriba had failed to provide reasonable notice to Foster Farms for a family medical leave of absence and that Foster Farms had not violated any of her rights. During the trial, it was proven that Ms. Escriba had taken 15 family and medical leaves over an eight year tenure with Foster Farms without incident.
“Whenever Ms. Escriba followed the procedure for a medical leave from Foster Farms, it was granted time and time again so this case really was not about a denial of anyone’s rights, it was about applying the same rules and policies to all employees evenhandedly,” Mr. Zarlenga said. “As a family-owned company, Foster Farms is more than generous with family leave and their policies actually allow employees to take leaves longer than the minimum requirements under the law. It’s only fair that everyone be required to follow the same rules, and apparently the jury felt the same way.”