Legal Issues

Minimizing FMLA Lawsuits (Hint: Don’t Fire After the FMLA Request)

FMLA 3

By Eric B. Meyer

In the world of human resources, “hire slow, fire fast” generally holds true to avoid just about any lawsuit.

Unfortunately, one New Jersey employer didn’t get the memo. And now they have to defend against FMLA interference and retaliation claims at trial.

What did this employer do wrong and how can you avoid making the same mistake? Find out after the jump…

Fire fast

In Rose St. Cyr v. Brandywine Senior Living, Inc., a certified nursing assistant found herself getting constantly written up for workplace rules violations. Excessive absenteeism? Yes. Ignoring an alarm? Sure. Insubordination? You know it. Consequently, the plaintiff was terminated.

And then the plaintiff was re-hired under a last-chance agreement (yeah, right), where she agreed to be placed on probation for a period of 90 days. So, of course, less than 90 days later, the Plaintiff is written up for insubordination and given a final written warning (yeah, right).

Bet you can’t guess what happens next?

Plaintiff requests FMLA leave. And next…

Two days before her FMLA leave is set to commence, the plaintiff is fired.

The reason given was that while she was on “final written warning” for having two previous write-ups and working subject to the last-chance agreement, Plaintiff was in the sitting room watching BET, an age-inappropriate channel, when she should have been watching residents, two of whom were wandering around.

Seems reasonable enough. Except, plaintiff’s supervisor also testified that she did not believe this was the type of incident for which an employee should have been terminated. Uh boy…

FMLA interference and retaliation? Could be

An employer interferes with the exercise of an employee’s right to unpaid leave if it discourages the employee from taking FMLA leave, even if the employee actually ends up taking the leave. An inference of retaliation exists when an employee is terminated shortly after engaging in protected activity.

And then there’s the proximity factor. Cut it too close between FMLA request and termination and, at summary judgment, as the Court here recognized, the employer’s proffered legitimate business reason for terminating employment, which is questionable here, won’t matter one bit:

Defendant states that it did not act in an antagonistic manner in response to Plaintiff’s request for leave. In fact, leave was granted, so there was no “interference.” The timing of Plaintiff’s termination, however, is suspect. She was terminated just two days before she was to start FMLA leave. An inference of retaliation exists when an employee is terminated shortly after engaging in protected activity. Alone, temporal proximity may not be enough to defeat summary judgment when the temporal relationship is not unusually suggestive or is too attenuated to create a genuine issue of fact …

However, “[w]here the temporal proximity between the protected activity and the adverse action is “unusually suggestive,” it is sufficient standing alone to create an inference of causality and defeat summary judgment….”Plaintiff argues that the timing of the adverse action is unduly suggestive of retaliation, and whether Defendant was unlawfully motivated to terminate her calls for factual and credibility determinations which are the province of the fact finder….The Court agrees. Therefore, summary judgment will not be granted on this count of the Complaint.”

There’s a lot to learn here

Timing aside, firing an employee after he or she requests FMLA is a sure-fire way to find yourself in litigation, especially when that employee’s supervisor claims that the offense is not severe enough to warrant termination.

And don’t get me started on progressive-discipline policies. They offer too many second chances to problem employees.

Plus, as with any policy, having it and not following it is even worse.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook..

Eric B. Meyer is a partner in the Labor and Employment Group of the Philadelphia-based law firm of Dilworth Paxson LLP . He dedicates his practice to litigating and assisting employers on labor and employment issues affecting the workplace, including collective bargaining, discrimination, employee handbook policies, enforcement of restrictive covenants, and trade secret protection. Eric also serves as a volunteer mediator for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Contact him at emeyer@dilworthlaw.com .