Pension & Benefits News Postal worker's FMLA claims advance based on promotion denials for ‘excessive’ use of leave
Friday, August 16, 2019

Postal worker's FMLA claims advance based on promotion denials for ‘excessive’ use of leave

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

A postal employee may proceed with her claim that she was denied promotional opportunities in retaliation for taking intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. Her allegation that several of her supervisors claimed that her "excessive" use of FMLA leave was one of the reasons that she was denied 11 promotions could show that the Postal Service either interfered or retaliated based on her protected leave. But she did not adequately plead an associational discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act or her apparent retaliation claim under Title VII.

In December 2016, the postal worker began taking intermittent FMLA leave to care for her disabled daughter. She alleged that on at least ten occasions in 2017 she requested and was denied supervisory and training positions. Her complaint alleged that the postal service cited her numerous absences and "excessive" use of FMLA as the reason for the denials. Additionally, the worker alleged that her supervisor suggested that her use of FMLA leave was because she exaggerated her daughter's condition and said "you have to be here." She also claimed that after she filed two EEO complaints, facility managers began to mentally and physically harass and intimidate her, made rude comments about her work ethic, and repeatedly commented about her "excessive" use of FMLA leave

Interference with FMLA rights. The postal worker alleged that her employer unlawfully interfered with her exercise of her rights under the FMLA. It was undisputed that the worker was entitled to FMLA leave because of her daughter's disability and that she provided notice of her intention to take FMLA leave. The issue was whether the postal service interfered with her FMLA rights by denying her benefits to which she was entitled.

The employer argued that there was no interference because she was never denied FMLA leave. Although acknowledging the Sixth Circuit has been inconsistent as to whether a plaintiff is denied benefits when she is discriminated against for taking FMLA leave, the court rejected this argument, noting that if an employer takes a negative employment action (such as denial of promotions) based on the employee’s FMLA-protected leave, the employer has denied the employee a benefit to which she is entitled. Based on the facts alleged in the complaint, the court concluded that the plaintiff had pleaded sufficient facts to support her interference claim.

Retaliation for taking FMLA leave. Finding she plausibly alleged her FMLA retaliation claim, the court found that the postal worker’s protected activity was supported by facts showing that she took leave to care for her disabled daughter. She adequately pleaded an adverse action in the alleged promotion and training denials. Her employer’s alleged citing of the worker's "excessive" use of FMLA leave as the reason for the promotion denials plausibly established a causal connection between the adverse employment action and the protected activity. Consequently, the court would not dismiss her FMLA retaliation claim.

Rehabilitation Act claim. The worker’s Rehab Act claim was based on the theory of associational discrimination; that is, an employer can be deemed to discriminate against an employee not because the employee is disabled, but because the employee shares a relationship or association with a disabled person. Although the court concluded that the worker established the second through fourth elements for a prima facie case for associational discrimination (she suffered an adverse employment action; she was known to have a relationship with her disabled daughter; and the circumstances of the adverse employment action raised a reasonable inference that her daughter's disability was a determining factor in the decision), she failed to plausibly allege that she met the first criterion for associational discrimination—that she was qualified for the promotions she sought and was denied. Her associational discrimination claim was accordingly dismissed.

Title VII claim. The worker’s final cause of action was framed as "Retaliation for Complaints Regarding Unlawful Discrimination" although she never cited Title VII or any other statute with respect to this claim. She failed to allege, however, that the unlawful discrimination was based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, opposition to employment discrimination, or submitting or supporting a claim about employment discrimination. Because Title VII does not extend to discrimination based on a disability, the court dismissed what it considered to be a Title VII retaliation claim.

SOURCE: Mitchell v. Brennan, S.D. Ohio, No. 2-18-cv-1385, July 29, 2019.

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