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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Argument that FMLA does not prohibit retaliation falls on deaf ears at court of appeals

When a company is caught making a bad employment decision, they come to us, their lawyers, to bail them out. Bryant v. Dollar General Stores (6th Cir. 8/15/08), presents one such example. Dollar Stores fired Martha Bryant, who testified that her supervisor told her she was being fired "[b]ecause of your health, I don’t think you can do the job."

Faced with what one can safely call bad facts, Dollar Stores got creative. It argued, both to the trial court and on appeal, that the FMLA does not prohibit retaliation against an employee who takes FMLA leave. The 6th Circuit correctly rejected that argument, and held that the FMLA does, in fact, allow for retaliation claims:

Any "right" to take unpaid leave would be utterly meaningless if the statute’s bar against discrimination failed to prohibit employers from considering an employee’s FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment decisions. Interpreting § 2615(a)(2)'s ban on discrimination in a manner that would permit employers to fire employees for exercising FMLA leave would undoubtedly run contrary to Congress's purpose in passing the FMLA. ...

Dollar General's reading of the statute would essentially render the FMLA a nullity. Their interpretation would require us to believe that—despite including statutory provisions granting eligible employees the "rights" to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave in a twelve-month period and to be restored to their prior positions or equivalent positions upon their return—Congress wished to erect no obstacle to prevent employers from terminating employees who exercise their newly granted "rights." In enacting the FMLA, Congress plainly stated that "the purpose of this Act" included establishing a right for "employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons." 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b). Interpreting the language in § 2615(a)(2), which bars employers from discriminating against employees, in a manner that would permit employers to terminate employees for taking qualifying medical leave is fundamentally inconsistent with the clear, unambiguous purpose of the FMLA.

There are two lessons to take from this case, aside from the common sense legal rule it announces. Lawyers are not superheroes. We cannot do the impossible, although we often try for our clients.

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