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Benningfield v. Fields

Supreme Court of Kentucky

September 26, 2019

RICK BENNINGFIELD, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS TAYLOR COUNTY JAILER; EDDIE "HACK" MARCUM, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS TAYLOR COUNTY JAILER; TAYLOR COUNTY FISCAL COURT; EDDIE ROGERS, TAYLOR COUNTY JUDGE EXECUTIVE; JAMES JONES, MAGISTRATE; JOHN GAINES, MAGISTRATE; TOMMY CORBIN, MAGISTRATE; MATT PENDLETON, MAGISTRATE; ED GORIN, MAGISTRATE; AND RICHARD PHILLIPS, MAGISTRATE APPELLANTS
v.
JERRY FIELDS APPELLEE

          ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2015-CA-001975 TAYLOR CIRCUIT COURT NO. 13-CI-00144

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: Arden Winter Robertson Huff Attorneys Services of Kentucky, PLLC.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Larry Duane Ashlock Ashlock Law Group.

          OPINION

          KELLER JUSTICE.

         In this wrongful termination case, the Taylor Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of Rick Benningfield, individually and in his official capacity as Taylor County Jailer; Eddie "Hack" Marcum, individually and in his official capacity as Taylor County Jailer; Taylor County Fiscal Court; Eddie Rogers, Taylor County Judge Executive; James Jones, Magistrate; John Gaines, Magistrate; Tommy Corbin, Magistrate; Matt Pendleton, Magistrate; Ed Gorin, Magistrate; and Richard Phillips, Magistrate. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that KRS 342.197 constitutes a waiver of sovereign immunity against a governmental employer and that genuine issues of material fact existed, thereby precluding summary judgment. Having reviewed the record and the applicable law, we now affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 23, 2008, Jerry Fields was hired as a deputy jailer with the Taylor County Detention Center (hereinafter, the "Jail"). His effective date of employment was November 1, 2008. At that time, Rick Benningfield served as the Taylor County Jailer.

         On June 11, 2009, Fields tore the rotator cuff of his right shoulder while attempting to restrain an inmate. Surgery to repair the tear took place in August 2009. Several months later, Fields's doctor informed him that there was a second deeper tear in the same shoulder and recommended a second surgery. After consulting with specialists and determining that his chance of improvement was slight, Fields declined to undergo this additional surgery. His doctor released him to perform only light duty work and restricted his lifting to twenty pounds or less, with no repetitive or overhead work and no use of power tools that vibrated. He was also directed to avoid those combat or restraint situations typically associated with the work of a corrections officer. Chief Deputy Jailer Kevin Wilson informed Fields that no such light duty work was available. Fields was never released to return to regular work and his restrictions are permanent.

         During Fields's medical leave, he was required to regularly update his employer on his medical status. Wilson testified at his deposition that he believed Fields came to the Jail on a couple of occasions after his injury, but Wilson could not recall speaking with Fields. Benningfield testified at his deposition that he could recall Fields visiting the Jail "a couple times" after his injury. He testified that he would contact Sherry Kerr, an employee with the county judge's office who typically handled the medical excuses, on a monthly basis to check on Fields's status.

         Fields, on the other hand, testified at his deposition that he visited the Jail after every doctor's visit and informed Benningfield and Wilson of his status. According to Fields, during the last two or three visits prior to his termination, he felt he was not welcome at the Jail. For example, he recalled one conversation in which Benningfield informed Fields that he would love to fire him but he could not do so because Fields was receiving workers' compensation. During that conversation, Benningfield noted that he was forced to fill Fields's position with part-time employees. Fields also referenced an earlier conversation with Wilson about Fields's demotion from sergeant to deputy. Fields had been promoted to sergeant in April 2009 for a probationary period and with a deputy's pay rate. After his injury, he was informed by Wilson that the Jail had decided to keep him as a deputy, rather than a sergeant. According to Fields, Wilson explained that he could do this because "I'm sitting here and you're sitting over there. I can do this." Fields also testified that the Jail stopped calling to check on him once it became known that he required surgery.

         Fields's medical leave expired on March 10, 2010. Chief Deputy Wilson testified at his deposition that he was contacted on that date by Kerr, the employee who typically handled the medical excuses. Kerr notified Wilson of Fields's expired medical excuse and her unsuccessful attempts to contact Fields. She asked if Wilson had attempted to contact Fields, and Wilson replied that it was not his job to track down Fields and he was ready to terminate him. The Jail then sent a notice of termination letter to Fields, dated March 15, 2010 and signed by Wilson. The letter was sent via U.S. Mail (first class). The body of the letter stated, in full:

         Notice of Termination effective as of 3/10/2010

1. Doctors excuse expired as of 03-10-2010
2. FMLA leave[:] you are not eligible for this because You [sic] had not worked 1 year prior to leave starting.
3. Cervical neck injury you are claiming as your injury At [sic] this time is not related to the shoulder Injury [sic] that workman comp. claim started with
4. No attempt has been made to contact the Taylor County Detention Center
5. Failure to contact employer on status of injury
This letter is also to inform you that your health insurance, Dental and life insurance will ...

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