Pension & Benefits News Brief termination for job abandonment after FMLA leave expired wasn’t unlawful interference
Thursday, December 17, 2020

Brief termination for job abandonment after FMLA leave expired wasn’t unlawful interference

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

An African American employee who was granted an additional fifteen months of medical leave after his FMLA expired, but was briefly terminated in the interim after the third-party benefits administrator failed to timely notify his employer of his request for an extension of leave, failed to defeat summary judgment on his FMLA interference claim. A federal district court in Washington also tossed his federal and state law claims of race discrimination and retaliation since he failed to cast doubt on the employer’s proffered reasons for giving him a negative performance review, placing him on a performance improvement plan, and denying his excessive travel requests.

The employee was hired by Honeywell in 2001 and after a series of promotions, became a senior analyst in 2011. In this role, he tracked, analyzed, and reported on the costs associated with the company’s aerospace development programs. After his supervisor was promoted in February 2017, he began reporting to a former peer who allegedly subjected him to "a pattern of racial discrimination."

Negative review and PIP. On July 28, 2017, the employee received an unsatisfactory mid-year performance evaluation that, amongst other things, criticized his untimely and incomplete reports and excessive travel requests as compared to his peers. He was also placed on a 60-day Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that required him to present completed reports on a monthly basis, be at his desk working "agreed upon core hours," complete certain required training, and receive written pre-approval for work-related travel.

Discrimination complaint. Less than a week later, on August 2, he filed a complaint with HR alleging his supervisor engaged in race discrimination by giving him the negative performance review and denying him opportunities granted to his peers—such as work-related travel, training, and the ability to telework. The company conducted a formal internal investigation and found no evidence of discriminatory treatment.

Resigns after extended leave. Meanwhile, the employee applied for medical leave through the company’s third-party benefits administrator and was approved for FMLA leave from October 4 through October 31. Due to his ongoing health conditions (which he claimed was caused by his hostile work environment), he made several requests for additional leave and was ultimately granted another 15 months of leave. However, he was briefly terminated in January 2018 after the benefits administrator failed to timely advise the employer of one of his requests. As he approached his eighteenth month of leave, he was given two weeks to contact the employer regarding his return to work but instead chose to resign.

No showing of pretext. As an initial matter the court found that the employee made out his prima facie case of race discrimination, ruling that his negative performance review, PIP placement, and denied requests for travel and training constituted adverse employment actions. However, his claim would not reach a jury since he failed to present sufficient evidence that the proffered reasons for these actions were pretextual.

First, he failed to refute the employer’s assertion that he received the negative review and PIP because his performance consistently fell below company standards. Prior assessments in 2015 and 2016 attested to those deficiencies and three managers testified that he consistently failed to provide timely reports and thorough explanations of cost variances. Moreover, his new supervisor worked closely with her superiors in deciding to give him the negative mid-year review in 2017 and his subjective beliefs were contradicted by all three managers.

The employee also failed to demonstrate that his supervisor discriminatorily denied his requests for travel and training. He didn’t refute the employer’s assertion that typical analysts were only required to travel one to two times per year and also admittedly traveled eight times in 2016, significantly more than his peers. He also admittedly timed his visits to Phoenix to coincide with family visits and did not contest that he incorrectly charged his most recent travel request to a different program than the one he requested.

No retaliation. His retaliation claim similarly failed to advance. Not only was he unable to show that the denial of his travel requests were pretextual, none of the requests were denied after his HR complaint. Moreover, while he claimed that his supervisor retaliated against him by failing to register him for a required training session, he did not dispute that he never asked to be registered for the session despite reminders about the incomplete courses he needed to fulfill for his PIP.

FMLA interference. The employee also could not survive summary judgment on his FMLA interference claim since all his requests for continuous medical leave were approved. Indeed, after he exhausted his FMLA leave, he received an additional fifteen months of leave per company policy. Thus, he received a total of over eighteen months of leave.

The court squarely rejected his contention that the employer interfered with his FMLA rights when it briefly terminated him for job abandonment after its benefits administrator failed to provide timely notification of his request for an extension of leave. First, his claim failed as a matter of law since he was terminated "after completion of his FMLA leave." Next, the company acknowledged it terminated him "based on an honest mistake" after receiving incorrect information from its third-party administrator that he had not applied to extend his medical leave beyond December 25. His failure to respond to the company’s inquiries regarding his scheduled return date of January 2 also suggested he had no interest in resuming his employment.

Lastly, the employee suffered no harm from his brief termination. Once the employer received the correct information that he had applied to extend his leave, it immediately retracted its termination decision and fully reinstated his employment. Because his benefits were also reinstated retroactively, he was neither denied any leave nor prejudiced from his brief and later-rescinded termination.

Tort claim barred. Finally, because the employee’s claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress was based on the same factual allegations underlying his state-law bias and retaliation claims, it was barred as duplicative pursuant to Washington law.

SOURCE: Delgado v. Honeywell International, Inc., (W.D. Wash.) No. 2:19-cv-00395-BJR., November 25, 2020.

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