By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff
A nurse who was fired two weeks after she inquired about when she would become eligible for maternity leave plausibly alleged FMLA interference and retaliation claims against her two supervisors and the HR director. Denying in part the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss, an Illinois federal magistrate judge ruled that it could be reasonably inferred from her allegations that they falsely accused her of mishandling medications to justify firing her to avoid the eventuality of her maternity leave. However, her Title VII and ADA claims against them were dismissed since those statutes do not allow claims against individuals.
Drug testing due to boyfriend. The nurse was hired on a part-basis in July 2014 while she was pregnant with fourth child. After she gave birth to her son in October, she accepted a full-time position and returned to work on November 30. Soon thereafter, management became aware that her live-in boyfriend was allegedly a drug user and began requiring her to undergo a drug test with each paycheck. She passed each test and denied drug use.
Inquired about maternity leave. After she became pregnant again, she met with her supervisor on May 14, 2015, to inquire about maternity leave and benefits. The supervisor told her that she needed to check with HR and a week later, informed her that to be eligible for such benefits she had to accumulate 1,250 hours by November 30, her one-year work anniversary. The nurse then began taking additional shifts and overtime to meet these requirements.
Accused of pill tampering and fired. Shortly thereafter, at a meeting on June 2, her supervisor, another supervisor and the HR director confronted the nurse for allegedly failing to administer pills to patients and keeping the pills in a separate plastic cup on the night of May 30 to 31. Though she denied the accusations, the other supervisor yelled at her and demanded that she sign an incident report form admitting her fault, while her supervisor and the HR director remained silent. Visibly distressed, she complied and was subsequently discharged.
Standard procedure followed?. The nurse claimed that even though the two supervisors and HR director would normally investigate each incident of missing or unaccounted for medications, they did not follow standard investigational procedures. For instance, they never established a chain of custody for the missing medications, did not check on the patients who supposedly never received their medications, and did not suspend her while they investigated the issue. Moreover, they never produced evidence tying her to the missing medication.
She filed this lawsuit against the employer, the two supervisors, and the HR director, claiming that she would have been eligible for FMLA leave by November 30 had she not been discharged and that they intentionally and maliciously colluded to fabricate the reasons for her discharge. She alleged a Title VII claim of pregnancy bias, FMLA claims of interference and retaliation, and ADA claims of disability bias. At issue was the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss.
FMLA interference. The court rejected the defendants’ assertion that her FMLA interference claims against them must be dismissed since she failed to allege specific conduct relating to their roles in her discharge. Rather, from the nurse’s allegations it could be reasonably inferred that she was a "competent employee with almost no negative work-related history" and was "fired a mere two weeks after inquiring about possible maternity leave for mishandling medications even though she did not mishandle medications." She also claimed that her supervisor spoke to the HR director regarding her expected FMLA leave and both were in the room when the other supervisor accused her of mishandling medications and pressured her to sign an incident report form to admit fault before firing her.
She further claimed that though two of the defendants were silent during that meeting, all three knew of her pregnancy status and prior inquiries regarding leave. They also regularly conducted investigations with the same procedures whenever an employee was suspected of mishandling medications. Nevertheless, they did not conduct a proper investigation into the accusations levied against her and all were present when she was terminated. Based on these allegations, it was reasonable to infer that all three defendants "falsely suggested she mishandled medications to justify terminating her to avoid the eventuality of her maternity leave."
FMLA retaliation. For similar reasons, the court also rejected the defendants’ contention that her FMLA retaliation claim must be dismissed since she failed to allege specific acts taken by them beyond conclusory statements of liability. By alleging that she inquired as to when she would be eligible for FMLA leave, she asserted she engaged in protected activity. She also alleged an adverse employment action since she claimed that defendants fired her in response to her request for leave, thus causing her to lose any leave benefits under the FMLA. Finally, she alleged that two weeks after she inquired as to FMLA maternity leave with the nursing director, she was terminated by the former nursing director for allegedly mishandling medications.
She also alleged she accurately administered all medications for which she was responsible and that the two supervisors and the HR director did not investigate the missing medication issue as they regularly would, instead terminating her two days after the alleged mishandling occurred. All these allegations—the suspicious timing of her termination relative to her FMLA inquiries and historically adequate job performance, the allegation that the three defendants did not investigate the missing medication as they always had with such incidents involving other employees, and the defendants’ pressure on her to sign the incident report admitting fault—adequately alleged a plausible causal connection between her request for leave and her firing.
SOURCE: Nair v. Winning Wheels, Inc., (N.D. Ill.), No. 3:17-cv-50266, February 21, 2019.
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