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In this regular feature, we present dramatized versions of actual legal cases involving Benefits and HR managers, and you get to predict how the court ruled. Today’s case: What happens when a fired employee claims retaliation for taking FMLA leave?
“I’m not asking for advice on this one,” Jake announced to HR manager Jill Killeen. “I’m just letting you know that I’ve made up my mind to fire Wendy Berger.”
Jill took a moment to consider what Jake had said before replying: “But Wendy just returned from medical leave and …”
“I know that as well as anyone,” Jake interrupted. “And that’s the problem. She shafted me on that.”
“What do you mean?” Jill asked.
“Before OK-ing her transfer to my group, I warned her that we were behind schedule because of being short-staffed, and how I needed her to step up big time. She said she was ready.
“And then one week into the job, she tells me she’s taking medical leave that she had planned for a couple of months. In other words, she knew she was going to be out before she took the transfer.”
“I understand why you’re angry,” Jill said. “Still, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, she has a right to take medical leave, and we’re not supposed to retaliate against her for doing so.”
“I’m not retaliating against her for taking leave,” Jake insisted. “I’m firing her for lying to me.”
After the termination, Wendy sued for violation of medical-leave rights. The company said the firing had nothing to do with leave; she was fired for misleading her supervisor.
Did the company win?
No, the company lost.
A court refused to buy the argument that the firing was for misleading the supervisor. When boiled down, the facts led to one question – and one answer: Would the employee have been fired if she hadn’t taken the medical leave?.
The simple answer was: no.
Given that, the court could come to only one ruling: The employee had been fired for taking the leave. That’s retaliation, and that violates the Family and Medical Leave Act.
What the law says
When you’re under pressure to do more with less, it can be frustrating to have to deal with employee absences and their ripple effect on scheduling and productivity.
You, however, can’t allow that frustration to translate into disciplinary action when FMLA leave is involved.
Several parts of the law warn against demoting, firing or otherwise penalizing employees who take FMLA leave and who have properly documented the need for the leave. Similarly, you can’t try to prevent employees from taking leave that’s been documented.
[Based on: Bryant v. Dollar General Corp.]