Employers cannot terminate employees for exercising an employee’s right to leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employees are often able to demonstrate that FMLA leave was a factor in terminating an employee when the termination occurs just after an employee takes FMLA leave and there is no a lack of documented performance deficiencies prior to the leave. In Montone v. Schuylkill Health System, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91050(M. D. Pa July 3, 2014 (Mariani, J.), the court found that the Plaintiff employee could proceed to trial with a FMLA retaliation claim under such circumstances where the Plaintiff worked for the Defendant employer and predecessors for 31 years, most recently as a Director of Patient Accounts, overseeing patient registration and accounting.
Less than one year prior to being terminated, the employee was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and hospitalized. The employee was initially released with restrictions working part-time until returning to full-time employment. The MS caused the employee significant discomfort at work such as leg pains, vision, headaches, memory and energy level problems. When the employee returned to full-time employment, the employer was experiencing cash flow issues caused at least in part by the employer’s conversion to a new billing software system. The employee received numerous inquiries into whether she was managing her department properly, threats that the Patient Accounting Department would “be outsourced”, and her supervisor’s comment that the CEO was watching her, that she should be careful and that she was going to be fired due to Defendant’s poor finances.
Due to the employer’s financial situation and the pressure placed upon her, the employee testified that she was reticent to take days off despite experiencing symptoms related to her MS and she testified that her supervisor prohibited her from taking time off except for a FMLA absence. As a result, the employee filed for FMLA leave in order to take time off for her MS. During a four-month period the employee took intermittent FMLA leave on many occasions including the immediate two work days before she was terminated for alleged failure to manage the bill/collection of patient accounts causing a significant revenue shortfall.
The FMLA provides up to twelve work weeks of unpaid leave during a twelve-month period for a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his position, and in some circumstances, certain family reasons. When an employee invokes FMLA rights, an employer may not discharge or in any other manner discriminate against the employee. To prevail on a retaliation claim under the FMLA, a plaintiff employee must prove that (1) the employee invoked the right to FMLA-qualifying leave, (2) suffered an adverse employment decision, and (3) the adverse action was causally related to invocation of FMLA rights. An employee does not need to prove that invoking FMLA rights was the sole or most important factor upon which the employer acted.
FMLA retaliation claims based on circumstantial evidence are assessed under the burden-shifting framework first established in McDonnell Douglas where the employee has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case by showing (a) invocation of a FMLA right, (b) an adverse action such as termination, and (c) causation. Then, the burden of production shifts to the employer to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. If the employer meets this burden, the employee must point to some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a fact finder could reasonably disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reason.
In Montone, the court noted that Plaintiff took FMLA days on consecutive business days and was fired the following day. As a result, the temporal proximity between the employee’s use of intermittent FMLA and termination is “unduly suggestive” and under applicable law, is sufficient standing alone to create an inference of causality. While the employer argued that temporal proximity alone does not establish causal linkage when the proximity of the termination is the result of documented performance deficiencies occurring before leave, the court noted the employer offered no evidence that prior thereto, the Plaintiff’s alleged inadequacies resulted in disciplinary action or poor performance reviews. Since the employer offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharge, the employee’s work performance was allegedly poor; the burden of production shifted back to the employee to demonstrate pretext, defined as some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a fact finder could reasonably disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reason.
In Montone, the court ultimately found that the issue of fact that precludes summary judgment is the degree to which the employer’s poor finances can be attributed to the employee’s work performance, or factors beyond her control primarily attributable to the implementation of a new computerized billing/accounting system. The court found that the degree to which billing system failures can be attributed to Plaintiff is a material issue of fact for a jury to resolve and if the jury concludes that the stated reason for discharge has no basis in fact, then a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer’s proffered rationale is pretextual, and instead conclude that the employee was micro managed and eventually scapegoated for the employer’s financial issues and that her use of FMLA played a role in her termination based on four factors: temporal proximity between Plaintiff’s FMLA leave and the termination which supports an inference of pretext; the employer blaming the employee for factors beyond her control; the employee’s assertion that her supervisor prohibited her from taking time off absent a request for FMLA; and the employee’s allegation that the supervisor grilled her about her use of FMLA leave. The Court found that these four factors create the sort of weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable fact finder could rationally find unworthy of credence, and instead infer that the employee was retaliated against for taking FMLA leave.
For more information on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Abramson Employment Law see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126523.html.