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Ex-Caterpillar employee sues company

A former Caterpillar employee is suing the company, claiming he was fired illegally after his doctor checked the wrong box on a medical report.

Matthew Gulczynski, of New Berlin, worked for Oak Creek-based Caterpillar Global Mining LLC at its South Milwaukee factory, and Caterpillar’s predecessor, Bucyrus International Inc., beginning in 1997, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Wisconsin federal court. In April 2013, before he was dismissed, Gulczynski was a gear cutter.

According to the complaint, Gulczynski severely strained his lower back April 18 while trying to move heavy equipment in his garage. He went to the doctor April 19, was told to stay home from work until April 23, prescribed medication and given a doctor’s note.

His doctor, according to the complaint, on April 22 faxed paperwork to Caterpillar detailing Gulczynski’s injury.

According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employee can be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year, without risk of losing employment, if there is a serious health condition that prevents the employee from working, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But Robert Mihelich, Gulczynski’s attorney, said there was a mistake in the paperwork, which was intended to satisfy FMLA requirements. That mistake, he said, cost his client his job.

The doctor checked the “no” box next to a question about whether Gulczynski’s injuries prevented him from working. That contradicted the information on the rest of the form the doctor faxed to Caterpillar, Mihelich said.

A Caterpillar official told Gulczynski the company would contact the doctor to clear up the mistake, Mihelich said. But the company, when following up with the doctor, mischaracterized Gulczynski’s injury as chronic, Mihelich said.

He said he suspects that caused confusion in the doctor’s office. According to the complaint, the doctor refused to comply with Caterpillar’s request to change the paperwork.

Gulczynski returned to work April 23, according to the complaint. Caterpillar, arguing the FMLA did not apply to Gulczynski, fired him the next day because of his absences, according to the complaint.

Mihelich said Gulczynski has not found a job since then.

Gulczynski could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Caterpillar has not filed an answer to the complaint, and a representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In August, Gulczynski filed a National Labor Relations Board charge against South Milwaukee-based United Steelworkers Local 1343. According to NLRB records, he claimed the union, of which he is a member, had failed or refused to help him fight his discharge from Caterpillar.

The NLRB dismissed that charge in November.

The NLRB determined the union had fulfilled its obligations to Gulczynski and had not acted in bad faith. Gulczynski’s “continued tardiness and absenteeism, without sufficient documentation to support a claim for Family Medical Leave, left the Union without an argument to present to the Employer,” according to the dismissal letter.

The union will not be named in the federal lawsuit, Mihelich said, and Gulczynski will not appeal the NLRB decision.

Rather, Gulczynski is seeking reinstatement at the Caterpillar plant and double back pay and benefits for the past year, Mihelich said. To win double damages, Mihelich said, he must prove the company’s violation of Gulczynski’s FMLA rights was willful, meaning Caterpillar failed to determine ahead of time whether its conduct would be appropriate. Mihelich said he has not calculated what those damages would be.

Mihelich said he believes he can make a strong argument.

“They basically just contacted the doctor,” Mihelich said, “and didn’t explain what the problem was.”

About Beth Kevit, beth.kevit@wislawjournal.com

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at beth.kevit@wislawjournal.com or 414-225-1820.

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