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Toyota: Fired worker was not protected by medical leave law

By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer

Toyota has denied it wrongly fired an employee from its Buffalo plant for seeking medical leave to address her methamphetamine problem.

In an answer filed late last month, Toyota Motor Manufacturing of West Virginia denies Melisa Rife’s assertion that it hired her in October 2011. Toyota says she was hired in June 2013 and, thus, when it fired her on April 4, as Rife states, she hadn’t yet amassed the year of work to be eligible for medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Rife, who sued Toyota in June, argues that the FMLA also protects her request for help with her substance abuse. Her lawsuit also takes issue with Toyota allegedly requesting a drug test while she was on medical leave, and with Toyota allegedly not providing required information on the FMLA, including how long her medical leave lasted.

Toyota argues that Rife — who also is suing for alleged invasion of privacy, retaliation, gender discrimination and inflicting emotional distress and outrage — was an at-will employee, who could be fired without cause.

“All of [Toyota’s] communications and actions with respect to the Plaintiff were taken or made for legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons,” the company states, continuing that it “...acted pursuant to an honestly-held, good faith belief that Plaintiff’s termination was warranted by her conduct.”

Toyota asked last month that the case be moved from Putnam Circuit Court to U.S. District Court, because the FMLA is federal law.

Rife, who lives in Milton and worked on the Buffalo plant’s assembly line, says she approached her assistant manager March 9 to tell him about her meth use. She says the supervisor called a human resources employee who, Rife says, told her to give him blood, hair and urine samples.

She says the human resources employee also told her to contact an Employee Assistance Program/Rehabilitation, which Toyota’s team member handbook states the company offers to employees with drug or alcohol problems should they “voluntarily request assistance before the Company requests testing or detects the problem.”

The handbook goes on to state that, “Those who seek assistance will not be subject to corrective action for the substance abuse so long as they comply with all provisions imposed by the Company.”

In its answer, Toyota neither confirmed nor denied that its handbook states that, admitting only in its response that it provides an Employee Assistance Program/Rehabilitation “for team members under certain circumstances.”

Rife says she received approval for eight therapy sessions but that, on March 20, while she allegedly was on medical leave, Toyota told her she had to take a drug test. She says she complied and was fired on April 4, after the results reportedly showed she had taken drugs she didn’t have a prescription for. She said she hadn’t finished her rehabilitation sessions.

The lawsuit states that Rife “met or exceeded” Toyota’s performance standards and was making about $48,000 a year, not including health benefits, although the company denies this. Among other things, she’s seeking her job back, back wages and punitive and compensatory damages.

A scheduling/status conference for the case is set for Sept. 29.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.


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