Labor & Employment Law Daily Employee with knee injury, fired after going on hunting trip during requested leave time, advances FMLA claims
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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Employee with knee injury, fired after going on hunting trip during requested leave time, advances FMLA claims

By Tulay Turan, J.D.

A jury could find the employer did not conduct a reasonable investigation before firing the employee because it made no effort to determine what he actually did on his time off and whether his activities were in any way inconsistent with his claimed disability.

An employee with a knee injury who asked for medical leave but was denied, went on a hunting trip during the requested leave time, and was terminated for failing to show up for work can proceed with his FMLA interference and retaliation claims. A federal district court in Michigan ruled there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the essential elements of his claim and the employer’s defenses and, thus, denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment (Pohutski v. Devon Facility Management, LLC, August 24, 2020, Leitman, M.).

Hunting trip. The employee injured his knee and requested FMLA leave from November 13, 2015, through November 24, 2015. Devon denied his request, but he nonetheless took the leave. Devon terminated him on November 25, claiming that he asked for leave to go on a hunting trip rather than for medical reasons. Devon claimed it fired him because he failed to appear at work after his request to go on his trip was denied. The employee subsequently sued, alleging FMLA interference and retaliation and the company moved for summary judgment.

Serious health condition. First, the court addressed the employee’s prima facie case for interference, rejecting Devon’s argument that he was not entitled to leave. The employee presented sufficient evidence to support a finding that he had a medical necessity entitling him to FMLA leave. The evidence included the employee’s testimony about the severity of his knee injury and medical documentation regarding the injury. He testified about the disabling pain and his physical therapy approximately three times a week in September and October to treat his knee.

In addition, his medical records further supported his claim that his knee injury amounted to a serious medical condition for which he needed time off. He presented a note, dated November 12, 2015, from his orthopedic surgeon that he was disabled by his knee injury and would be disabled approximately until November 24, 2015, pending further evaluation. In addition, the employee testified he went on the trip, but his injury prevented him from hunting. He said he stayed in the car or the cabin. A jury could reasonably conclude his trip was not inconsistent with his claimed serious knee injury.

Notice. Next, the court found the employee established that he gave Devon notice of his intent to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason. Even if he first requested time off for non-medical leave, he presented sufficient evidence that he later asked for medical leave and made the extent of his injury known to Devon. He testified he told the program manager and his supervisor that he was incapacitated by his knee injury and specifically asked for medical leave. In addition, he submitted an email, dated November 13, 2015, informing his supervisor that he needed to take medical leave until November 24, 2015, to recover from his knee injury.

Leave denied. Regarding the fifth element of the employee’s prima facie case, the court found a jury could find he had a serious health condition that entitled him to medical leave as previously discussed. A jury also could find that he was denied that FMLA-protected benefit when he was terminated on November 25, 2015, after he returned to work from his medical leave. Thus, he presented sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of FMLA interference.

Retaliation. Turning to the retaliation claim, the court found the employee satisfied all the elements of a prima facie case. He presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find he engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA and that Devon knew he was exercising his right to medical leave. He showed Devon took an adverse employment action against him—firing him the day after he returned from leave—after Devon learned he exercised those rights. Also, there was a causal connection between his protected FMLA activity and the adverse employment action. The temporal proximity between his leave and his termination supported an inference of causation at the prima facie stage.

Legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason? Turning to step two of the McDonnell Douglas test, the court assumed, without deciding, that Devon’s reason for firing the employee—insubordination by not appearing at work or providing a valid excuse—satisfied this step. The court acknowledged Devon’s reason might have been intertwined with, and not independent of, the employee’s exercise of his rights under the FMLA. The court explained it would address this attack on the proffered reason at step three of the test.

Honest-belief rule. Regarding whether Devon’s reason for terminating the employee was pretext, the employee claimed he had a valid excuse fornot appearing at work—his request and need for leave. He contended that several of the assumptions underlying Devon’s conclusion that he was insubordinate were inaccurate. The court agreed the evidence could support a finding that Devon was mistaken in concluding the employee was not entitled to leave and therefore was insubordinate when he did not appear at work.

Devon countered that even if it was mistaken about whether the employee was entitled to leave and/or was insubordinate, it still was entitled to summary judgment because it honestly believed he was insubordinate and thus subject to termination. The court found Devon was not entitled to summary judgment under the honest-belief rule because the employee presented sufficient evidence calling into question Devon’s investigation. A jury could reasonably conclude Devon was not protected by the rule because it terminated the employee without conducting a reasonable investigation into his doctor’s disability determination, which he provided before Devon fired him.

A jury could further conclude Devon did not conduct a reasonable investigation before firing him because it made no effort to determine what he actually did on his time off and whether his activities were in any way inconsistent with his claimed disability. Because the employee presented sufficient evidence under the McDonnell Douglas framework to go forward with his FMLA interference and retaliation claims, the court denied Devon’s motion for summary judgment on both claims.

Statute-of limitations defense. The court also found Devon was not entitled to summary judgment based on its statute-of-limitations defense because the evidence could support a finding that the alleged FMLA violations were willful. As such, the employee’s claims were subject to a three-year statute of limitations. Because he brought this action less than three years after the alleged violations, his claims were not time barred.

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