Pension & Benefits News Denial of request to extend otherwise exhausted FMLA leave into next calendar year may have been unlawful
Friday, July 19, 2019

Denial of request to extend otherwise exhausted FMLA leave into next calendar year may have been unlawful

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

A nursing home employee who exhausted 12 weeks of FMLA leave during the last few months of 2016 for medical conditions related to an ultimately unsuccessful pregnancy, and was then fired 11 days after she requested additional leave to recover from a hysterectomy, sufficiently alleged violations of the FMLA and pregnancy discrimination under Title VII. A federal court in Pennsylvania found it plausible that the employer utilized a calendar-year method for calculating FMLA leave, thereby entitling the employee to 12 more weeks of FMLA-protected leave. Moreover, the close temporal proximity, combined with the fact that the employer had responded to her original request for intermittent pregnancy-related leave by requiring her to take full-time leave, allowed a reasonable inference of discrimination based on her pregnancy-related medical condition. The employer’s motion to dismiss was denied.

Required to take full-time leave. On August 1, 2016, the employee requested intermittent FMLA leave in order attend medical appointments related to her pregnancy. On August 31, the employer informed her that she would be required to take a full-time leave of absence until she delivered the baby, which was due in March 2017.

Ordered to return. She unfortunately lost her child due to medical complications, and in mid-October requested to remain out of work until December 5 in order to deal with her medical issues. At the end of November, she asked to extend that leave until December 28. Sometime later, she asked for another leave extension until January 16, 2017. The employer denied this latest request and told her that she had to return to work on December 30.

Terminated following hysterectomy. On December 23, the employee notified the employer that she had undergone a hysterectomy on December 14 and indicated that she was unable to return to work immediately. The employer subsequently terminated her on January 3, 2017. She then filed this lawsuit asserting that her termination violated the ADA, the FMLA, and Title VII. At issue was the employer’s motion to dismiss her FMLA and Title VII claims.

FMLA interference. Declining to dismiss the employee’s FMLA interference claim, the court rejected the nursing home’s contention that her FMLA interference claim failed as a matter of law since the FMLA guarantees only 12 workweeks of leave and the period during which the employee was on unpaid leave (between August 31 and January 3) exceeded that amount. Therefore, the employer unsuccessfully argued, the employee was not deprived of any rights to which she was entitled under the FMLA.

While the employee was clearly away from work for more than 12 weeks, the court could infer that the nursing home was utilizing a calendar-year method of calculating FMLA leave and that therefore she was entitled to 12 more weeks of FMLA leave in 2017, despite exhausting her 2016 benefits. Therefore, she plausibly alleged that the nursing home interfered with her right to take that leave.

FMLA retaliation. The court also rejected the nursing home’s contention that the employee’s FMLA retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because she failed to allege a causal link between her invocation of her FMLA rights and her termination. As with her FMLA interference claim, the court must construe the employee’s December 23 communication to the employer, in part, as a request for 2017 FMLA leave. If the timing of her termination 11 days later was not "unduly suggestive" on its own, a reasonable jury could consider other alleged circumstances to infer retaliation, including the employee’s extensive medical leave in 2016.

Pregnancy bias. She also plausibly alleged a causal link in support of her pregnancy discrimination claim. On December 23, she notified the employer that she was unable to return to work because of a recent hysterectomy, which was required because of medical complications arising from her unsuccessful pregnancy. Eleven days later, she was fired. That close temporal proximity—combined with the fact that the nursing home responded to the employee’s request for intermittent pregnancy-related medical leave by requiring her to take full-time leave—could allow a reasonable jury to find that the nursing home discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy-related medical condition.

SOURCE: Stahl v. Susque View Home Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (M.D. Pa.), No. 4:19-cv-0003MWB, June 21, 2019.

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