Federal Court Decision Outlines Potential Pitfalls of FMLA Retaliation

On July 23, 2018 a federal judge in this district denied a defendant Town’s motion for summary judgment on a Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claim brought by a former employee. The employee sued the Town and two supervisors alleging retaliation for taking FMLA leave to care for her ill spouse. The decision is instructive on pitfalls for employers where an employee has exercised FMLA rights.

During the majority of the plaintiff’s 25 years working for the Town’s Recreation Department she received positive reviews. In 2015, her husband became ill and the plaintiff informed her supervisor, the Assistant Town Manager, that she would need to attend appointments with her husband.  The Assistant Town Manager told the plaintiff to take all the time she needed, and informed the Town Manager of the situation.  Around this time, however, the Town observed that the plaintiff had failed to complete certain assignments, missed meetings, and played tennis during the Recreation Department’s business hours.

As the Town commenced an investigation into this alleged misconduct, the plaintiff requested intermittent FMLA leave to assist her husband. The Human Resources Director and Assistant Town Manager then informed the Town Manager that the plaintiff would be exercising her FMLA rights.  A week later, the Town demoted her. (While the Assistant Town Manager told the plaintiff it was because she could no longer trust her, a Recreation Department employee claimed that the Assistant Town Manager told him it was due to the time the plaintiff needed to attend to her husband’s illness.)  The Town and the plaintiff also entered into a Last Chance Agreement (“LCA”) which provided for termination in the event she engaged in misconduct.  After a series of poor interactions between the plaintiff and Town employees, the Assistant Town Manager notified her that she was being placed on paid administrative leave and likely to be terminated.  In lieu of termination, the plaintiff resigned.

Plaintiff sued, claiming that she was retaliated against for taking FMLA leave when the Town demoted her, imposed the LCA, and forced her to resign or face termination. A plaintiff claiming FMLA retaliation must first establish that: (1) she availed herself of a protected right under the FMLA; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is a causal connection, i.e., that the employer took the adverse action because the employee exercised her rights.  If the plaintiff meets this requirement the employer must then articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action.  If the employer successfully articulates a reason, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision.

The district judge ruled that the plaintiff had met her initial requirement because (1) she had availed herself of a protected right under the FMLA when she took time to assist her husband’s medical needs and requested FMLA paperwork; (2) she had suffered an adverse employment action when she was demoted, allegedly forced to sign the LCA, and forced out of her position; and (3) there was a causal connection where she was demoted just a week after formally requesting FMLA paperwork and the ultimate decision maker (the Town Manager) was presumed to be aware of the plaintiff’s need to take FMLA leave because the Assistant Town Manager’s knew of it.

The judge next found that the Town had articulated a non-discriminatory reason for its actions because there was evidence that the plaintiff had engaged in misconduct. The judge also ruled,  however, that the plaintiff had met her obligation of showing that the Town’s reason was a pretext because she had successfully worked for the Town for over two decades but her relationship with Town management only deteriorated after she had invoked her FMLA rights. The judge therefore ruled that there was sufficient evidence for the plaintiff to have a jury decide her claim.

This decision serves as an important reminder for employers that caution must be exercised when taking employment actions where the employee has asserted FMLA rights.  In most situations it will be wise to consult with an attorney in order to decide whether to take action and, if so, how to do it in a way which minimizes legal exposure.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor or employment law generally, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.