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Alleged forced leave that exhausted worker’s savings not irreparable harm to justify injunction

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Neither a temporary restraining order nor a preliminary injunction would be granted to a T-Mobile tech who was allegedly placed on an involuntary unpaid leave that exhausted his FMLA entitlement after seeking to take intermittent FMLA leave to cover any shifts in excess of his normal 10-hour shift due to medical restrictions. Although a federal district court in Washington state was sympathetic to the tech, who had exhausted his savings and feared his line of credit soon would be exhausted, he simply could not show that he would suffer an irreparable harm that money damages would not compensate or that his fears of fiscal ruin and emotional harm were certain to occur (Roness v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., September 11, 2018, Martinez, R.).

Forced unpaid leave. After 18 years working as a data technician for T-Mobile, the tech was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, and his physician recommended he not work for more than 10 consecutive hours. The tech’s complaint alleged he generally had worked 10-hour shifts and sometimes was required to work overtime or be on-call in addition, so in effect his medical restriction was to not work overtime or on-call hours. When he notified T-Mobile of these medical restrictions, he claimed the company placed him on “indefinite unpaid leave,” and although the company indicated it planned to place him in an alternative position, it had not done so.

Exhausted FMLA leave, exhausted savings. Instead, although the tech asked to be returned to his same position, work his normal hours, and take FMLA leave in order to be excused from overtime or on-call hours, T-Mobile allegedly did not allowed him to return to work. Rather, it approved him for FMLA leave for the “indefinite unpaid leave” it placed him on, and then notified him that he has exhausted his FMLA leave entitlement. During his forced unpaid leave, the tech said he had exhausted his savings; gone into debt; and feared he will soon have maximized his line of credit. As a result, after he filed suit in state court (which T-Mobile removed to federal court), the tech sought either a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction to force T-Mobile to return him to his previous position.

Likelihood of success. Addressing his motion, the court reiterated the tech’s argument that the FMLA entitles him to 12 weeks of leave for his serious medical condition, which he can use intermittently to cover only any overtime or on-call hours that T-Mobile requires. He contends that T-Mobile clearly interfered with his FMLA entitlement by not allowing him to take intermittent FMLA leave. While the court agreed that his claim was plausible at this “early juncture,” it also recognized that T-Mobile denied almost all of the factual allegations of the complaint, the parties hadn’t yet engaged in substantive discovery, and the record simply wasn’t sufficiently robust to conclude that T-Mobile would not have a non-frivolous defense. “The TRO process is not simply a short cut to the normal process of civil litigation,” the court reminded, finding the tech’s likelihood of success not enough to tip the scales.

Irreparable harm. The tech’s argument for irreparable harm was that he has not been earning income while on leave, his savings account is depleted, and he has been borrowing against lines of credit that may soon be exhausted. However, this harm is not irreparable, said the court, noting that the tech’s factual support was vague. He argued that “The economic hardship of not having income and the ever mounting debts are additional stresses on my life because I know that my line of credit will be maximized in the near future and I am not sure what will happen then as well as concerns of being burdened with the debt into the future is worrisome.” Without any other factual support—and there was none—this was insufficient. He did not establish that the harm was immediate. In fact, the tech did not indicate when his line of credit will be exhausted, just in the “near future,” or that anything had changed recently to make exhaustion more likely. Although the tech had not worked since March 2018 and had not earned income since he stopped working, the court suggested that he “knew that his money would eventually run out and had time to plan for the eventuality.”

Speculative. Also negating irreparable harm was the fact that the tech could not establish that an irreparable harm would even occur. He claimed it might lead to “hunger, losing his car, homelessness” and possibly bankruptcy, but he also indicated that he is “not sure what will happen” when his line of credit runs out. Emotional harm was also speculative, as the tech mentioned only his stresses, concerns, and worries, all of which the court found simply too speculative to justify the extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief.

Money damages not inadequate. Finally, the court was not convinced that the monetary damages ultimately available would adequately compensate him for the emotional harm he was facing. The cases he cited were simply not on point, one addressing a teacher dying of AIDs in the 1980s and another a prisoner suffering from physical and emotional pain because he was denied necessary medical treatment and was impeded from learning to care for himself. Here, the tech was not limited in his ability to take any necessary steps to protect himself from any possible emotional harms. The motion for a TRO and/or preliminary injunction was denied.