Ex-Eatonville public works director sues over firing he says jeopardizes his chance for a heart transplant

Eatonville’s former public works director, saying he needs his job to have a shot at a heart transplant, has filed a federal lawsuit against the town alleging he was denied his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act after a heart procedure and subsequently fired without cause.

Abubakr Canady, 56, said he was terminated in August despite previous assurances from town officials that he would be granted unpaid leave following a July surgery, according to court documents filed last month in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

Canady said he filled out paperwork provided by the tiny Orange County town’s human resources department to request three days of unpaid leave under FMLA and provided medical records from his doctor. He expected the request to be approved but instead said town officials terminated him, according to the suit.

After the loss of his employer-provided health insurance, Canady was notified in a letter by a local transplant center that his status on the national registry was downgraded to “inactive.”

The ability to pay for the costly procedure and a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs is often a crucial factor considered by transplant centers, according to a report last month by Kaiser Health News.

“I, for one, never expected at 56 that I would need a new heart in order to live,” Canady said in an interview. “Without health insurance, I could not afford the $1.4 million — on average — that it costs for a heart transplant.”

Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole on Wednesday declined to comment on the case and said the town hadn’t been served with a notification of the lawsuit.

Canady, who began working for Eatonville in 2015, said he was diagnosed with a condition related to congestive heart failure in 2016. The following year, he underwent surgery to implant a defibrillator and used his accrued paid time off, he said.

The latest surgery required an unexpected extended hospitalization so he said he used his remaining benefits and then requested the unpaid leave.

Under federal law, employees of FMLA-eligible employers can take unpaid job-protected leave for medical reasons while still being covered by a group health insurance policy.

One of the issues at stake is whether the town of about 2,300 residents qualifies as an FMLA employer under the law’s criteria, which includes employing a minimum of 50 people.

Eatonville has 39 full-time employees, according to Cole.

But Canady’s lawyer, Carlos Leach, founder of a Winter Park-based firm, said town officials’ request and acceptance of the FMLA paperwork led Canady to believe his leave would be approved.

“There’s some courts that say even though the employer may not qualify for the employee minimum, if they make a representation to the employee and the employee relies on it to his detriment, they can’t hide behind the shield of having the minimum number of employees,” Leach said. “They still may be liable in that context.”

In the suit, Canady is asking for monetary relief, including lost earnings, and job reinstatement.

But the most pressing issue, Canady said, is to regain his health insurance for a chance to be matched with a new heart.

“It’s just extremely important,” Canady said. “I have a lot of life left to live and I still have a lot to offer.”