Pension & Benefits News Employee failed to show his termination related to having taken FMLA leave
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Friday, January 17, 2020

Employee failed to show his termination related to having taken FMLA leave

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

An employer was granted its motion for summary judgment against a case brought by an employee pursuant to the FMLA, ruled a federal district court in Illinois. The employee failed to show that his discharge was related to his having taken an FMLA leave. Rather, the employee was discharged after it was determined that he had lied to a corporate executive regarding discussions of a transfer and severance package. Further, the employee failed to establish that he suffered economic injury as a result of the alleged interference with his FMLA rights as he he did not lose compensation upon his return, and his termination was not in retaliation for exercising rights under the FMLA.

Granting of FMLA leave. The employee began work for the employer on November 8, 2015 as an account executive handling insurance products distributed through car dealerships. He was assigned to existing accounts while at the same time being required to undertake prospecting for new accounts. On September 30, 2016, he notified his superiors that he might need time off to care for his ailing grandmother. The employer responded by informing him of his leave options with respect to PTO, bereavement, and FMLA Leave. On November 8, 2016, the employee’s grandmother died. The date was also his one year anniversary of employment date and he became eligible for FMLA leave. In mid-November he sought FMLA leave because he was having issues with anxiety and depression. The employer granted him FMLA leave for 12 weeks until February 17, 2017.

Performance review and return to work. While the employee was on FMLA leave, his supervisor completed reviews of his employment performance including his "4th Quarter Goals Check-In" and his 2016 Overall Performance Ratings. The supervisor marked every business goal on his 4th Quarter Check-In as "not started," and on his 2016 Rating, the supervisor rated his overall performance as "Inconsistent." A rating of Inconsistent was defined as: Employee meets some performance expectations but may have difficulty with consistency or in meeting all performance expectations.

Upon his return to work, the employee was assigned to a different territory, but held the same title, had the same manager, and the same pay. He worked with the same team, and his rate of compensation was guaranteed to not be reduced during the first six months after his return to work. The new territory, however, required him to perform different duties, and did not have established clients who were existing Accounts, and he therefore had to spend his time solely prospecting for new accounts. He did not view the new territory as an inferior job to the work he was doing prior to his FMLA leave.

Ineligible for internal transfer. On February 27 and 28, 2017, the employee and an HR staffer exchanged emails about the possibility of his applying for a transfer to US Warranty, a company that the employer had recently acquired. However, HR explained to him that employees had to be meeting expectations in their current positions in order to apply for internal transfers to another division. On March 3, 2017, the employee had a telephone conference call with his supervisor and HR at which time he was presented his 4th Quarter Check-In and his 2016 Rating. In a separate call later that day, HR again advised him that he either had to embrace his role and focus on working successfully under his current supervisor, or decide that it was not working out for him at the employer.

Conference in Dallas. A few days later the employee attended a conference in Dallas, prior to which HR had updated the Vice President as to his employment issues and the fact that he did not want to work for his supervisor upon his return from FMLA leave. At the conference, the employee told at least one attendee of his desire to transfer to US Warranty, and when the Vice President got wind of this, he instructed him not to disrupt things by discussing the possibility of a transfer. In a subsequent discussion, the Vice President told him that he understood that the employee did not want to work for the supervisor, and, reminded him that a transfer was not an option; he then suggested a severance package as a "soft landing" or "soft exit" out of the company, but instructed him not to discuss the desire for a transfer nor the severance proposal with anyone.

In disregard of the Vice President’s wishes, the employee in fact discussed the transfer, and the figure of the severance proposal with others—which he later denied. He was confronted, and, upon determining that he was lying to the Vice President he was fired.

Requirement of economic injury. The employee brought the instant lawsuit claiming interference with his FMLA rights, and the employer moved for summary judgment. The court began its analysis by stating the elements which the employee needed to prove, that: (1) he was eligible for the FMLA’s protections; (2) his employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) he was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) he provided sufficient notice of his intent to take leave; and (5) his employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.

The court further noted that an employer denies an employee his FMLA benefits if the employer interferes with the employee’s use of those benefits. An employer interferes with the use of FMLA benefits if it views taking FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as hiring, promotion, or disciplinary actions. Furthermore, the FMLA only allows recovery for economic injuries, and does not authorize recovery of nominal damages or other non-monetary damages.

No retaliation nor economic injury. The employee conceded that his termination was not in retaliation for his exercise of his rights under the FMLA, and, he further conceded that he received the same level of compensation after returning from his FMLA on February 17, 2017, until his termination on March 9, 2017. Because he did not lose compensation upon his return, and his termination was not in retaliation for exercising rights under the FMLA, the court questioned how he suffered economically from the claimed interference with his FMLA rights. Accordingly, the court found that he failed to establish the requisite economic injury or that his rights under the FMLA were interfered with, and granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

SOURCE: Hickey v. Protective Life Corporation, (C.D. Ill.), No. 18-cv-3018, December 18, 2019.

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