Sunday, February 12, 2012

How to Measure an FMLA Interference Claim

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a Family Medical Leave Act case that has important applications for practitioners there and in other circuits. In a case where the Plaintiff employed was terminated from her job one day after returning from an FMLA absence, the Court held that the McDonnell-Douglas  analysis was the proper framework to assess whether the Plaintiff made a sufficient case to survive a summary judgment motion. The Court determined that where an employer establishes a good faith belief that its decision was based on a non-discriminatory reason, it can defeat FMLA interference and retaliation claims.

The facts of the case were relatively clean. The plaintiff was out on leave that she later claimed was FMLA-related. Prior to her departure, the plaintiff's employer began an investigation into missing cash register receipts, focusing on her register. Her employer’s suspicion crystalized while she was gone, and one day after she returned she was terminated. She sued for FMLA interference and retaliation, as well as discrimination based on an alleged disability under the ADA. She lost at the trial court level, where the judge granted summary judgment and determined that she failed to present evidence showing that her employer’s reason for its decision was actually a pretext for FMLA interference, retaliation, or discrimination.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, applying the McDonell-Douglas prima facie/pretext standard to the claims.

This is an important decision by Court of Appeals. Other courts have determined that the McDonell-Douglas framework is not applicable to FMLA interference claims and that these cases are better analyzed under a mixed motive analysis (i.e. under an analysis where an employer may have considered the FMLA issue, along with other legitimate factors, in its determination of whether to act against an employee). Mixed motive cases are virtually impossible to dispose of via summary judgment, so the Sixth Circuit here is definitely striking a blow for employers in these types of cases.  The decision is also important because FMLA interference cases, unlike Title VII cases, don't have to be decided on issues of intent--if the employee is entitled to FMLA leave and the employer does something that prevents her from using it, liability attaches.  If an employer can show there's no entitlement via the Title VII standard, then it has a clearer path to avoid being sued.

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