Pension & Benefits News Employee discharged for breach of confidentiality, not exercise of FMLA leave rights
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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Employee discharged for breach of confidentiality, not exercise of FMLA leave rights

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

Finding that an employee failed to show that her employer’s stated reason for her termination, breach of confidentiality, was pretextual, a federal district court in Pennsylvania granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment against her FMLA claims. Here, the court found that the evidence indicated that the employee’s position would have been eliminated regardless of whether she had taken FMLA leave. Consequently, she was not entitled to be reinstated upon her return from leave, so that her interference claim necessarily failed. With respect to her retaliation claim, the court determined that whether or not the information revealed by the employee was confidential, she was instructed to keep the information confidential, which she agreed to do, and she admitted that she shared some of that information with coworkers. Thus, she failed to carry her burden to show pretext.

FMLA leave. The employer provided subassembly services to Harley-Davidson, its only customer. For several months each year, it hires additional workers on a temporary basis to handle a "surge" in Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle production. The employee worked as a junior quality engineer on the day shift. In August 2016, she began to experience side-effects from a Depo-Provera shot. As a result of her health condition, the employee requested FMLA leave, which the employer granted.

At some point prior to the employee’s leave, Harley-Davidson advised the employer to reduce its salaried workforce to meet lower production demands. During the employee’s leave, a quality engineer from night shift was moved to the day shift.

Reduction in force. On October 27, the employee returned to work without medical restrictions. That same day, she met with company officials who advised her that she had been selected for an upcoming reduction in force (RIF) and that her position had been eliminated from the day shift. The employee was given the option of taking a night shift position that would terminate after the surge period, or accept immediate layoff. She accepted the temporary night-shift position. The employee was also instructed to keep the meeting confidential, as other positions would be impacted by Harley-Davidson’s reduced production. She agreed to keep the meeting confidential.

After the meeting, the employee spoke with two coworkers and told them that she was moving to night shift and would be terminated after the surge. On October 28, the employer was informed that she had shared information from the meeting with coworkers. Two days later, the employee began working the night shift.

Discharge. On November 1, the employer met with the employee to discuss the claim that she had spoken of information learned during the confidential meeting. She admitted that she told coworkers that she was moving to the night shift and would be terminated after the surge. Thereafter, the employer terminated her employment citing breach of confidentiality.

The employee brought suit claiming interference with her rights under the FMLA, as well as retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The employee sought summary judgment as to liability, while the employer sought complete summary judgment.

FMLA interference. In this instance, the court found it unnecessary to wade into the question of whether the employee may proceed under either an interference or retaliation theory of liability. Rather, it concluded that the employee’s interference claim failed because she was not entitled to reinstatement. The employer had been instructed by Harley-Davidson to reduce its salaried workforce in response to lowered production goals. The employee’s position had been selected for that reduction at some point while she was on leave. The employer explained that she was selected because the other junior quality engineer had a more diverse background. The employee offered no evidence to rebut these statements. Therefore, the evidence indicated that the employee’s position would have been eliminated regardless of whether she had taken FMLA leave.

Retaliation claim. Next, the court turned to consider the employee’s claim of retaliation. Here, there was no dispute that the employee satisfied the first two elements of her prima facie case, she took FMLA leave and suffered an adverse employment action. The undisputed facts also indicated that the employee was given a choice the same day she returned from leave to accept immediate layoff or a temporary position on night shift. She accepted the temporary position and approximately one week later, was terminated. The record further showed that she was the only person in the quality department to have taken FMLA leave, that she had not been subject to any prior disciplinary actions or poor performance reviews, and that she had more experience as a junior quality engineer than the employee who was retained. Therefore, the record supported a prima facie case of retaliation.

However, the court found that the employer clearly met its burden to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment actions. It initiated the RIF in response to a personnel reduction required by Harley-Davidson. The employee was specifically chosen for reduction because the only other junior quality engineer had additional experience with another department. With respect to the employee’s termination, the employer offered testimony that she breached an agreement of confidentiality by sharing information learned during a meeting with management. Thus, the court found that the employer adequately stated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.

Pretext. To counter the employer, the employee argued that the temporal proximity between her leave and the adverse employment actions supported her assertion of pretext. While the court agreed that the timing was short, it was not convinced that this argument cast sufficient doubt on the proffered explanation. Harley-Davidson instructed the employer to put the reductions into effect around October 3. The employee was informed that she had been selected for reduction once she returned from leave on October 27. Moreover, the employer gave the employee an opportunity to remain with the company through the end of the surge period, rather than simply terminating her.

The employee also suggested that her selection was suspect because she had more experience as a junior quality engineer than the employee who was retained. However, she offered nothing to contradict the employer’s explanation that the retained employee had experience in another department.

With respect to her termination, the court rejected the employee’s suggestion that the information she shared could not be regarded as confidential. Rather, the court noted that whether the information was confidential or not, the employee was instructed to keep it confidential, which she agreed to do, and she admitted that she shared some of that information with coworkers. Thus, the employee’s own admissions reinforced the employer’s proffered explanation. Finding that the employee had not carried her burden to show pretext, the court could not sustain her claim of retaliation.

SOURCE: Stottlemyer v. Syncreon.US Inc., (M.D. Pa.), No. 1:17-cv-724, October 9, 2018.

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