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RULING SUPPORTS SICK-LEAVE RIGHTS

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Employees throughout Utah should celebrate a Court of Appeals decision Thursday regarding the use of sick leave, according to an attorney in the case.

The higher court reversed a judge's dismissal of a lawsuit filed against Zions First National Bank by a woman who claimed the bank wouldn't give her time off for cancer surgery.Gina Cook, a single mother who also cared for her grandchildren, died in March, about two years after filing the lawsuit. She said her supervisor at work denied repeated sick-leave requests for four months after a lump on her lip was diagnosed as malignant.

By the time her bosses gave her a day off to have the lump removed, the aggressive cancer had moved to her jaw and lymph nodes. She said she did not just take a day off and call in sick because she feared being fired.

Cook, 44, hoped to see her case go to a jury before her death. But 3rd District Judge David Young dismissed the lawsuit last summer, saying neither an express nor implied contract for sick leave on demand existed between Cook and the bank.

Zions attorneys agreed a "schedule to accrue sick leave" existed in a statement of benefits signed by both parties. However, that didn't mean a contract to use it on demand was in place, they reasoned.

The appeals judges criticized that argument as "narrow" and said the basis of Young's decision to dismiss was unsupported by Utah case law.

"(The bank's) interpretation would defeat the very purpose for which parties contract to obtain sick leave. Employees do not contract with an employer to receive sick leave merely to watch their hours accrue. At some point, the employees will use those accrued hours to take time off to take care of their health," wrote Judge Russell W. Bench.

The bank denied Cook requested time off and said she would not have been fired for calling in sick. The company maintains Cook in fact took time off for other reasons during the same period and that her doctor told her that having the medical procedure was not urgent.

"We believe if the case goes to trial, the evidence will show that," said Zions attorney Lois A. Baar, noting her firm may appeal the decision to the Utah Supreme Court.

Though the case is far from over, Cook's attorney, Roger H. Hoole, said Thursday's decision sets a favorable precedent for workers.

"It shows employees they need to be treated fairly when it comes to the terms of an employment contract. I think it will help employers realize that when they promise something, they need to deliver it," he said.

Hoole, who represents the interests of Cook's three surviving daughters, will now begin preparing for a possible trial in the case. The lawsuit was filed in September 1994 and seeks $5 million in damages.