Pension & Benefits News Supervisor terminated in RIF while on leave advances ADA, FMLA claims
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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Supervisor terminated in RIF while on leave advances ADA, FMLA claims

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

A supervisor of a health care company who was discharged in an enterprise-wide RIF following her requests for accommodation and FMLA leave defeated summary judgment on her ADA claims of disability bias and retaliation as well as her FMLA retaliation claim. The close temporal proximity between the announcement of her job elimination and her protected activity established the requisite causal connection and comparator evidence bolstered her pretext showing, a federal district court in South Carolina ruled. However, her FMLA interference claim was tossed since she was undisputedly granted all the leave to which she was legally entitled.

Intermittent FMLA leave for medical issues. In 2013, the employee was hired as a supervisor of member services for the employer, a health care company. In July 2015, she was granted her request for intermittent FMLA leave relating to her severe anxiety and depression. The leave was renewed through 2017, and the employee’s manager also allowed her to take personal, non-FMLA absences to care for her two children and attend her graduate classes.

Flexible scheduling ceases. In November 2016, she was promoted to the position of case manager supervisor (CMS), which entailed additional responsibilities that required her to arrive to work and leave early on occasion. About six months later, in May 2017, the employer renewed her intermittent FMLA leave relating to her anxiety and depression. However, after she arrived to work late without prior notice on June 15, her manager withdrew approval of future non-FMLA absences and told her she would need to take full PTO whenever she needed to miss work for personal matters, including picking her son up from camp.

Car accident leads to accommodation request. In July 2017, the employee and her children were injured in a car accident, which resulted in her having significant limitations in sitting, lifting, walking, and bending. Afterwards, she sought an ADA accommodation and intermittent FMLA leave due to her own physical disabilities, and also requested intermittent FMLA leave to care for her children based on their injuries and other pre-existing medical conditions. The requests were granted by the end of the month.

Complains to HR. However, the employee’s manager purportedly turned hostile toward her and began excluding her from meetings, ceasing mentorship, and treating her as if she was "one hundred percent disabled." She complained about the unfair treatment to HR and threatened to contact the EEOC if the employer did not investigate. Meanwhile, her anxiety and depression continued to worsen and on August 17, she was admitted for daily inpatient care. She then requested and was granted continuous FMLA leave through September 16, 2017.

Discharged in RIF while on leave. Two days prior to her scheduled return, the VP advised all department supervisors that their positions would be eliminated as part of an enterprise-wide RIF effective November 15. The employee was terminated along with six other supervisors, but while four of them were offered lower-level positions, she was permanently fired.

Prima facie case of retaliation. Allowing the employee’s FMLA and ADA retaliation claims to advance to trial, the court first found that she presented sufficient evidence to establish a causal connection between her protected activity—requesting FMLA leave and an accommodation under the ADA—and termination. In particular, her employment was purportedly terminated on September 14, about two months after requesting an accommodation to attend physical therapy, one month after requesting continuous FMLA leave for inpatient care, and days prior to her scheduled return from continuous FMLA leave. This temporal proximity was sufficient evidence at this stage to make her prima facie showing of causation.

Triable issue on pretext. Moreover, a triable issue existed as to pretext with regard to both retaliation claims and her disability bias claim. In explaining its justification, the employer asserted that it terminated her due to an enterprise wide RIF based on an external consulting group's recommendation that it cut 10 percent of the workforce. As part of that process, it decreased the number of reporting layers in the healthcare services department and the VP chose to remove the supervisor level within the department. This included the employee’s position.

Challenged unfair treatment, not reason for RIF. The employee did not challenge the reason for the RIF or the elimination of the supervisor position from the management structure. Instead, she challenged the decisionmakers’ displacement of the terminated supervisors and argued that another supervisor who was not disabled and did not take FMLA leave was treated more favorably by being offered a demotion. She also claimed that she was the only supervisor on her team who was actually discharged as a result of the RIF and that her low RIF evaluation score stood in contrast to her overall job performance and was indicative of retaliatory animus.

The testimony by the two decisionmakers (her manager and the VP) regarding her past work performance, and that of the other supervisor who was not disabled and didn’t take FMLA leave, showed triable issues exists surrounding the legitimacy of her RIF score and the reasons behind her discharge. While their testimony indicated that the employee had been considered a good performer, the comparator was viewed more negatively. Yet he received a higher score on the RIF evaluation and was offered a demotion in lieu of termination. Accordingly, while the employer raised a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee’s discharge, a question of material fact remained as to the legitimacy of that reason.

SOURCE: Bradford v. Molina Healthcare of South Carolina, LLC (D.S.C.), No. 2:18-cv-00649-RMG, January 23, 2020.

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