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

06/13/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

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.

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