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Discharge less than month after suicide attempt, two weeks after seeking leave supports FMLA claims

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Despite an employer’s argument that a suicidal employee’s position was eliminated in a reduction in force and he was thus not covered by the FMLA, a federal district court in Tennessee found that the employee plausibly alleged that he was eligible at the time he requested medical leave and that his termination two weeks later constituted FMLA interference. The court also denied the employer’s motion to dismiss his FMLA retaliation claim, though his intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed (Rosen v Guardsmark, LLC, December 20, 2013, Anderson, S).

After working as a VP in Human Resources for over a decade, the employee sought a transfer within the company. In April 2012, he was selected as the new VP of sales and marketing. He was told there was an urgent need to fill the position, that the reassignment was not optional, and that he would stay at the same salary for 90 days before his compensation would be reevaluated. On May 4, he met with his supervisor to discuss the new position. He was never told his new position was in danger of being eliminated; rather his new position was considered essential.

Overdose and termination. On May 7, the employee intentionally overdosed on prescription medication. He had long suffered from major depressive disorder and other medical conditions about which the employer knew. The employee’s family informed the employer that he had attempted suicide and his wife received instructions on filling out the FMLA paperwork, which was submitted on May 22. Less than two weeks later, and without having communicated with the employee, the employer terminated him. The termination letter stated that the company had eliminated his position effective June 1 as part of a company-wide reduction in force, though the employee alleged that no such RIF actually took place. The letter further stated that because his position had been eliminated, the company had no basis to grant him FMLA leave. The employee filed suit.

FMLA interference. Moving to dismiss the employee’s FMLA interference claim, the employer did not dispute that he had a serious health condition but argued that he was no longer “an eligible employee” under the Act when he requested leave because his job was eliminated in a RIF. Disagreeing, the court noted that the employer’s view failed to accept all facts alleged in the light most favorable to the employee. He alleged that his spouse spoke to the employer as late as May 10 and received instructions on requesting FMLA leave, which was done on May 22. At no time prior to the request did anyone at the company indicate he was about to lose his job or that his FMLA request would be denied. Thus, based on the allegations, the employee worked for the employer through June 1 and was an eligible employee when he submitted his FMLA paperwork. The pleadings were silent as to the timing of the termination decision and that issue could not be resolved at this stage. Consequently, the motion was denied.

FMLA retaliation. The employer argued that the employee failed to state his retaliation claim because he did not allege any facts to support a causal connection between his request for FMLA leave and his termination. Rejecting this argument, the court found that the complaint alleged specific dates and times at which the employee’s wife discussed his medical condition and need for leave with the employer and identified the precise FMLA forms submitted on May 22. Thus, it plausibly alleged that he engaged in protected activity. Furthermore, the alleged close temporal proximity between the protected activity and the termination was enough to state a plausible claim of retaliation. The court noted that it was not necessary for the employee to plead each element of his prima facie case; it was enough to plead facts allowing a reasonable inference that the defendant was liable for the misconduct alleged. For these reasons, the motion to dismiss was also denied on the retaliation claim.

IIED claim. On the other hand, the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed because the employee “merely set out ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action’ for IIED” without factual content to support the claim. The IIED claim was therefore dismissed.