Tuesday, 05 April 2016 09:12
Just three days before the plaintiff was scheduled to return to work from medical leave for knee replacement surgery, her position was eliminated. The employer terminated the plaintiff’s position as part of an ongoing reduction in force. The plaintiff alleged her termination violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and the employer moved for summary judgment.
The plaintiff worked in a law firm’s legal processing department, which was responsible for preparing and filing court claims, among other duties. During her employment, the plaintiff utilized the FMLA on four occasions for personal medical reasons, and returned without issue. In 2012, the employer determined it needed to reduce its staff as the volume of business was decreasing. In order to identify which employees would be included in the reduction in force, the employer developed guidelines which included (1) work, functionality and the ability to absorb/move responsibilities to other roles; (2) overall work performance; (3) current write-ups; (4) ability to adapt to change and work on a team and (5) seniority. A total of 60 employees were terminated. A number of the terminated employees never took FMLA leave during their employment.
Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to a total of 12 workweeks of leave during any 12 month period for a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee. After returning from FMLA leave, an employee must be reinstated to her position or an equivalent position. It is unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain or deny the exercise of FMLA rights. If an employer interferes with the right to leave or to reinstatement, it has violated the FMLA. However, an employee who requests leave does not have greater protection against her employment being terminated for reasons not related to the FMLA request or leave. The court held that summary judgment should be entered in favor of the employer because there is no evidence the employer denied plaintiff any FMLA benefits or interfered with her right to FMLA leave.
Retaliation or discrimination liability theories under the FMLA arise against an employer who discriminates against an employee who has taken FMLA leave and or uses FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions. A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case by showing (1) she engaged in a statutorily protected activity, (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the adverse employment action and the protected activity. If there is a close temporal proximity between the FMLA leave and termination, the plaintiff will meet the necessary causal connection. If a plaintiff is successful in proving those elements, the burden shifts to the employer to offer evidence that it took an adverse employment action for a legitimate and non-discriminatory reason.
Here, the Court held the plaintiff successfully established a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation. However, the Court also found the employer produced evidence that the plaintiff was terminated as part of a firm wide reduction in force, which constituted a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for plaintiff’s termination. The court narrowed the issue then to whether the employer’s articulated reason for termination constitutes pretext. At the pretext stage, the plaintiff must produce evidence from which a jury can reasonably reject the employer’s reason for termination. Based on the evidence submitted, the Court held the plaintiff failed to demonstrate pretext, and found in favor of the employer.