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Firing employee on heels of FMLA leave suggests interfering with reinstatement, retaliation

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

The timing of an employee’s termination just a few days after she returned from FMLA leave, based in part on a two-day absence that she claimed was approved, raised triable issues on her FMLA retaliation claim, ruled a federal district court in Michigan. Also denying summary judgment on her FMLA interference claim, the court found that her termination so close on the heels of her return suggested the employer did not comply with the requirement that she be reinstated to the same or an equivalent position. The employee also raised triable questions on her ADA and state-law disability discrimination claims (Rumph v. Randazzo Mechanical Heating & Cooling, November 8, 2018, Hood, D.).

The employee worked for the employer three separate times, the most recent of which started in December 2014, when she was hired to be an account manager in the “New Construction” department, overseeing employee time cards, invoicing clients, preparing proposals, and checking inventory, among other duties. When hired, she informed her supervisor that she had a previous opioid addiction, depression, anxiety, and ADHD, and that she needed to see her doctor monthly. She was freely permitted to attend her monthly appointments.

New supervisor learns about addiction, ADHD. In July 2015, she was put under a new supervisor because the company was starting to phase out the New Construction department. The employee’s responsibilities were essentially the same. That first month, the new supervisor was copied on email correspondence between the employee and the company’s health benefits person concerning reimbursement for her medication. The supervisor allegedly commented that she could “not fathom what type of prescription would cost that much.” The employee told her about her addiction, ADHD, and depression problems, as well as her need for a monthly doctor’s appointment, which continued.

Work relations sour. According to the employee, the new supervisor informed the CFO about the employee’s addiction and, thereafter, the CFO’s behavior toward her changed. She claimed he started nitpicking her cigarette breaks and singled her out in telling her how to handle her time card. He also allegedly made derogatory comments, such as sarcastically asking “does anyone have a Vicodin I can have?”

FMLA leave. The employee learned in January 2016 that her mother had Stage 4 cancer and she asked to go on FMLA leave. The employer offered her unemployment instead, but she declined. She was granted leave in January 2016, which she took starting February 2. On March 11, the employer sent a letter stating her leave would end on April 10 and she was expected back to work on April 11. The employee’s mother died on March 19, but she was allowed to complete her period of leave.

Terminated days after return. She returned on April 11 and was put in a new finance position because the New Construction department had by then been eliminated. Her new responsibilities were substantially equivalent to her prior duties, but she claimed it was a demotion. The employee missed work on April 12 and 13, allegedly for approved reasons. On April 15, she was told that her position was eliminated. Her supervisor testified that she was terminated because she had chronic problems with attendance and punctuality, she was unable to perform finance functions, and there was not enough work to keep her busy. The employee filed suit claiming the employer discriminated based on perceived disability or record of disability, in violation of the ADA and Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), and that it violated the FMLA.

Disability discrimination claims proceed. Denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment on her ADA and PWDCRA claims, the court found the employee established a prima facie case because her medical conditions were considered disabilities under the statutes, she presented evidence that she was qualified for her job, she was terminated, the employer was aware of her disability, and she was replaced by a non-disabled individual. Furthermore, she testified that, contrary to the employer’s assertion, her absences on April 12th and 13th were approved and she never expressed any disinterest in handling financial responsibilities. In the court’s view, this was enough to raise triable issues of material fact.

FMLA claims proceed too. The employer argued that the employee’s FMLA interference claim failed because she was never denied benefits or rights to which she was entitled. To the court, though, there was a genuine dispute on whether she was reinstated to her prior position or to an “equivalent position” as the FMLA requires because she was terminated just days after returning to work. And though the employer offered legitimate reasons for its decision, she raised triable issues on pretext.

The FMLA retaliation claim also survived. Though the employer argued the employee could not show an adverse employment action since her new position was the same, it failed to acknowledge that she also claimed her termination was an adverse action. Furthermore, she provided evidence of a causal connection to her FMLA leave, including the temporal proximity of her termination just days after returning from leave.