A federal district court, in Walpool v. Frymaster, LLC, has allowed a terminated employee’s Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) retaliation claim to proceed to trial due to the close proximity between his request for FMLA leave and his termination.
Background. The plaintiff had been employed for 21 years when he requested intermittent FMLA leave to take his wife, who had recently suffered a stroke, to physical therapy. Although the employer approved the plaintiff’s request, he was terminated four days into the intermittent leave for being absent without notice.
In the wake of his termination, the plaintiff filed suit against his former employer, alleging that it had interfered with his previously approved FMLA leave and terminated him in retaliation for exercising his right to such leave. In response, the employer requested that the matter be dismissed because the employee had been terminated because he had failed to give proper notice of his intent to take leave on the specific day in question.
Law. The law allows FMLA-eligible employees to take temporary leave for medical reasons, for the birth or adoption of a child, and for the care of a spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition without the risk of losing employment.
Under FMLA, an employer may require that an employee follow its usual and customary practices for requesting leave. Discipline resulting from the employer’s failure to do so typically does not constitute interference with FMLA rights unless the employee can show unusual circumstances. Examples of interfering with the exercise of an employee’s FMLA right include refusing to authorize FMLA leave and discouraging an employee from using such leave.
District Court. The court reviewed the record and determined that the employee had provided evidence in the form of paperwork indicating that he: (i) complied with all employee obligation under FMLA; (ii) was approved for leave; and (iii) complied with the FMLA policy contained in the employer’s employee handbook. Accordingly, the court ruled that the employee had sufficiently shown that he gave proper notice that he would be absent on the day in question. Therefore, the court denied the employer’s request to dismiss the claim before trial.
The court further determined that the close timing between the employee’s FMLA request and his termination was enough to establish a causal link between the two events. As a result, the court also allowed the employee’s retaliation claim to proceed to trial.
Employer Takeaway. Establishing adequate notice of an FMLA-protected absence is an easy burden for employees to meet. Therefore, before taking any adverse action against an employee who has requested FMLA leave, employers must be certain that that the employee has not previously provided proper notice.