Monday, October 20, 2008

Comment about employee’s job security leads to reversal of summary judgment in FMLA retaliation case

A maintenance technician with a history of back problems suffers from unpredictable episodes of back pain that temporarily rendered him unable to perform his job duties. As a result, his employer granted him intermittent FMLA leave. The problem worsened to the point that he needed FMLA leave of more significant duration. Prior to taking the leave, the employee claims that his employer’s HR Director told him “if I took that FMLA for that period of time, there would not be a job waiting for me, when I returned.” Shortly after the FMLA leave began, the company experienced a layoff, which required the company to let go one maintenance technician. The employee on FMLA leave was the least senior maintenance tech and was selected for the layoff.

He sues for FMLA retaliation, but the district court grants the employer’s motion for summary judgment and dismisses the claim. In Daugherty v. Sajar Plastics (6th Cir. 10/16/08), the 6th Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment on the FMLA retaliation claim, finding that the HR Director’s comment was direct evidence of the company’s retaliatory intent:

Clearly, this unambiguous comment, which we must take as true at the summary judgment stage, constitutes direct evidence that Daugherty’s termination was motivated by unlawful, discriminatory animus. Alexander was Daugherty’s immediate supervisor and a decision maker at Sajar. A fact finder would not be required to draw any inferences to determine that Alexander retaliated against Daugherty when Alexander explicitly threatened such retaliation and the threat – that Daugherty would not have a job waiting for him when he returned from leave – was realized….

For its part, the company had valid reasons to lay-off and not recall Daugherty: he was the least senior employee in a bloated department, and he refused to provide medical certification when Sajar Plastics tried to recall him a few months later. One comment, however, from a person in a position of authority over Daugherty’s job, casts enough doubt on the company’s motive to cloud the legitimacy of its justifications and create an issue for trial. Let this case serve a cautionary story – be very careful in the words you select whenever dealing with anyone remotely engaging in protected activity.