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Family and Medical Leave Act court case has lesson for employers, employees

  • Published Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family, medical, and military-related reasons. The act applies to all private-sector employers who employed 50 or more employees in 20 or more work weeks in the current or preceding calendar year, and to all public agencies, including state, local and federal employers.

To be eligible for leave under the FMLA, an employee must: work for a covered employer; have worked for the employer for a total of 12 months (need not be consecutive); have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months prior to taking leave; and work at a location in the United States or in any territory or possession of the U.S. where at least 50 employees are employed by the employer within 75 surface miles.

A covered employer must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 (or 26) workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:

• For the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee (up to 12 weeks);

• For placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care (up to 12 weeks);

• To care for an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition (up to 12 weeks);

• To take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition (up to 12 weeks);

• To handle qualifying exigencies (up to 12 weeks); and/or

• To care for a family member who is a covered military service member (up to 26 weeks).

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act – the federal law that entitles eligible workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family, medical, and military-related reasons.

However, the FMLA recognizes two types of claims: interference and retaliation. The differences were highlighted in a recent court case, Rodriguez v. University of Miami Hospital (Eleventh Circuit, No. 11-15206; Dec. 3, 2012). The case provides important lessons for employers and their employees.

An employee, Iliana Rodriguez, filed a lawsuit claiming her employer interfered with her rights by failing to reinstate her after FMLA leave. She also claimed she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The interference claim was allowed to proceed, but the retaliation claim was dismissed.

Upon returning from FMLA leave, Rodriguez was transferred to a position with the same pay and benefits, but virtually no responsibility. Since it was not an equivalent position (one of the act’s key stipulations), the court evaluated whether the transfer interfered with her reinstatement right. Employers can refuse reinstatement for a reason unrelated to the FMLA leave, but must provide a clearly valid reason.

The company’s human resources director testified that he reassigned Rodriguez because, at a meeting upon her return from leave, she said she no longer wanted to work with her supervisor. However, Rodriguez denied making that statement.

In fact, the meeting notes included a discussion of when she would return to her former position. Also, the only documentation of alleged performance issues appeared in an e-mail written by the supervisor just one hour before that meeting. Because of these inconsistencies, the court allowed the interference claim to proceed.

Rodriguez also claimed she was terminated in retaliation for taking FMLA leave, since she was fired six weeks after returning. The employer cited her inability to work with her supervisor as the reason for termination. Rodriguez was then required to demonstrate that this reason was false or that it was given to hide a retaliatory motive.

About four weeks after her return, another employee told Rodriguez that her supervisor “did not want her back” and she should look for another position. Rodriguez’s purported willingness to work with her supervisor did not prevent the supervisor from refusing to work with her. Since she was unable to prove that the supervisor’s action was retaliatory, the employee’s claim was dismissed.

If an employee claims retaliation, the employer can offer a nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. The employee has the burden of proving retaliation. In contrast, if an employee claims interference, the employee only needs to show that a right or privilege was denied. The employer must prove that the disputed action was taken for reasons unrelated to the FMLA leave. Otherwise, a jury may be allowed to decide whether interference occurred.

The key to remember from the court case is this: While interference and retaliation should be avoided, claims of retaliation require the employee to prove a violation. In contrast, claims of interference may require the employer to show that it comply with the FMLA.

Ed Zalewski is an editor at J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., a compliance resource company that offers products and services related to human resources. For more information, go to www.jjkeller.com.

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