Pension & Benefits News No FMLA claims for employee fired shortly after returning from business trip to ‘evaluate’ wife’s health
Friday, November 8, 2019

No FMLA claims for employee fired shortly after returning from business trip to ‘evaluate’ wife’s health

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

Not only did a former employee fail to show he was needed to care for his wife, who had been feeling ill, when he returned from a business trip against his employer’s wishes, he failed to adequately communicate that he wanted to take leave or be given a reduced work load, a federal court in Michigan ruled, granting summary judgment against his FMLA interference claim. And because he was not engaged in any FMLA-protected activity, his retaliation claim failed as well. However, the employer entitled to sanctions, said the court, even though the employee pursued his FMLA claims despite evidence his wife ran errands, went out to eat, and attended a movie during the period of time at issue.

As a manager in U.S. Steel’s (USS) Customer Quality Engineering Department, the employee managed four Customer Quality Engineers (CQE), including one who was assigned to the central Tennessee region and USS’s Nissan account. When a steel processor closely associated with both Nissan and USS began complaining about the lack of support from the CQE, the employee failed to take any action. A representative from the steel processor subsequently informed a USS Director of Automotive Quality that both the employee and the CQE had failed to support it and that both were frequently unavailable.

In late January 2018, the employee drove from Michigan to Tennessee to conduct the CQE’s annual performance review and to visit the steel processor in a "relationship-building effort." Prior to leaving, he learned of a quality issue at a Mississippi Nissan plant. Although Nissan’s quality manager informed him that "We need plant support ASAP," the employee, who remained in Tennessee after completing the performance review, responded that "I am troubled by the information that I have been provided thus far suggesting that the root cause of the lines you see might [be] caused by the material. I’m afraid that as long as you continue with the assumption that the issue is driven by the steel, you may further delay proper identification of the real root cause."

Save us from these guys. The following day, after USS and Nissan determined that USS needed to provide immediate on-site support at the Mississippi Nissan plant, a Nissan representative emailed USS, stating "Please save us from these guys at USS. This is the same support we get when we have an issue with their material. They practically refuse to come to the plant and assist in the investigation. They continue to manage quality from another state. No other steel vendor supports us so poorly."

Feeling ill. During this same time period, the employee’s wife told him she had been feeling ill. Accordingly, on February 1, the employee returned to Michigan. He claimed that it was not until he was driving home that the director asked him to travel to Mississippi. In response, he purportedly told the director his wife had been feeling ill, reminded him that she was in heart failure, and stated that he needed to evaluate her condition. When he arrived home, he determined that she did not need medical attention. He went to work the next day and worked throughout the weekend while his wife ran various errands.

He was fired the next month based on his inappropriate and unprofessional customer interactions. He subsequently sued, asserting that USS interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him when he attempted to exercise those rights.

FMLA interference. At issue in his FMLA interference claim was whether the employee provided care for his wife during the days he had been asked to visit the Nissan plant in Mississippi. While the FMLA does not define the term "to care for," the DOL’s implementing regulation states: "The medical certification provision that an employee is needed to care for a family member or covered servicemember encompasses both physical and psychological care. It includes situations where, for example, because of a serious health condition, the family member is unable to care for his or her own basic medical, hygienic, or nutritional needs or safety, or is unable to transport himself or herself to the doctor. The term also includes providing psychological comfort and reassurance which would be beneficial to a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition who is receiving inpatient or home care."

Not needed to care for his wife. Although USS argued that the employee could not show he was caring for his wife because there was no evidence she was unable to care for her own needs, or was receiving inpatient or home care, the employee contended that the regulation was not an exhaustive list because it uses the term "for example." But the list, while not exhaustive, provides guidance by presenting examples of situations that would qualify under the FMLA, said the court, and the employee’s situation differed greatly from the examples provided. Finding that he failed to show he was needed to care for his wife, the court pointed to his testimony that he drove home to "observe" or "evaluate" her, not provide care for her.

In addition, observed the court, his wife’s conduct showed she was able to care for herself even if worried about going into cardiac arrest as she completed her work day the day she notified her husband that she felt ill and drove almost an hour from her work location to her home. The next day, she told the employee to go to work and that day and throughout the weekend, she completed various errands and activities, demonstrating that she did not require the type of care contemplated by the FMLA.

Notice. Nor could the employee show he provided adequate notice of his leave request, said the court, rejecting his contention that he gave notice when he told the director he would not travel to Mississippi due to his wife’s health condition and that he was requesting a reduced leave schedule. He did not communicate that he wished to take leave or be given a reduced work load and USS could not be expected to know he was requesting leave when he refused to travel to Mississippi but then continued to work throughout the weekend after he returned home. Further, rather than telling the director he was returning to care for his wife, he stated that he was going home to "evaluate her condition."

Reduced work schedule. And while the employee argued that traveling was part of his job and thus his request not to travel to Mississippi was a request for a reduced work schedule, the court found his refusal to make one business trip in order to evaluate his wife’s condition did not qualify as communicating a request to work a reduced schedule. Rather, he was requesting that USS accommodate his work schedule so he could remain close to his wife. Finding the employee was not entitled to FMLA leave, the court granted summary judgment against his interference claim.

Retaliation claim. And because the employee was not engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA, he could not satisfy any of the elements of his retaliation claim, said the court, dismissing this claim as well.

Sanctions. The court next turned to the employer’s motion for sanctions, in which it asserted that despite evidence his wife was not confined to bed during the time period in issue, the employee continued to pursue his FMLA claim. While her active schedule during those dates called into question the gravity of her health condition during that period and her need for the employee’s presence, that did not necessarily assist in understanding his knowledge of her health or his FMLA claim. The FMLA permits individuals to care for family members, said the court, and the employee’s asserting an FMLA violation on this basis did not rise to the level of sanctionable behavior.

SOURCE: Schaar v. United States Steel Corp., (E.D. Mich.) No. 18-13151, October 18, 2019.

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