By: Michael Klotz

In Sledge v. Graphic Packaging International Inc., the Fourth Court affirmed the lower court decision awarding summary judgment to the Defendant, a custom packing products manufacturer, on both claims in a wrongful termination lawsuit. Ms. Sledge, a former employee, alleged that the Defendant violated the North Carolina Retaliatory Discrimination Act (“NCRDA”) and the North Carolina Persons with Disabilities Protection Act (“NCPDPA”).

Facts

On March 31, 2012, Ms. Sledge was working as a Sheeter Operator for the Defendant. On this evening, Ms. Sledge was assisting with a project that required running paper thicker than normal through the sheeter. In order to reduce the curl of the paper, which was fed from rolls, Ms. Sledge fed the paper using a different method than she had used before. Attempting to test the tension of the paper being run through the machine, Ms. Sledge touched the paper and her hand was pulled into the sheeter. Ms. Sledge’s hand was badly bruised and swelling, and she received treatment at a hospital. She indicated to her employer that she intended to file a worker’s compensation claim to recover compensation for her injury.

Ms. Sledge was subsequently terminated for violating company policy. A policy document issued by Defendant states that an employee may be immediately terminated for violating a “Safety Absolute” of the company, which is a serious and unsafe act. In this case, putting one’s hand into the sheeter was determined to be a serious and unsafe act. Ms. Sledge subsequently filed this lawsuit.

Reasoning of the District Court

The district court granted summary judgment to the Defendant on both claims. Summary judgment was granted on the NCRDA claim, because the Defendant presented sufficient evidence that she would have been terminated even if she had not filed a worker’s compensation claim. The company cited the fact that all previous employees who had violated a “Safety Absolute” had been terminated, and employees who had been injured without violating company policy had received worker’s compensation and not been terminated. On Ms. Sledge’s second claim, the court concluded that she was not protected under the NCPDPA. The statute protects those persons with a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Ms. Sledge alleged in her complaint that she was protected under the statute because the Defendant regarded her as having a mental impairment. However, she presented no evidence to support this assertion, and the only medical evidence she offered were hospital X-rays. As a result, the court granted summary judgment to the Defendant.

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