Monday, August 31, 2009

6th Circuit re-affirms mixed-motive causation under the FMLA

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court did away with the notion of a mixed motive termination in an age discrimination case. In Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., the Court held that to succeed on an disparate treatment claim under the ADEA, a plaintiff must prove that age was the only cause of the challenged action. I’m not breaking ground by reporting that employers make decisions that implicate statutes other than the ADEA. And, in those decisions, there are often more than one motive present. So, does the Gross, but-for rule apply in mixed-motive cases under other statutes, such as the FMLA? Last week, in Hunter v. Valley View Local Schools (8/26/09) [PDF], the 6th Circuit gave us the answer.

Before we get into what the court ruled, it helps to understand the issue by briefly looking at exactly what happened to Eunice Hunter, a custodian for the Valley View schools. Following a car accident, Hunter had three rounds of surgery over the span of two years. Following each surgery, she missed months of work, and returned with restrictions. Ultimately, the school district placed her on involuntary unpaid leave. The superintendent gave two reasons for the termination – her excessive use of FMLA leave, and her inability to perform her job because of her permanent restrictions. The district court dismissed Hunter’s FMLA claim because the school district would have placed her on involuntary leave regardless of her FMLA leave because of the permanent medical restrictions.

The 6th Circuit, however, reversed, finding that unlike the ADEA, the FMLA authorizes claims based on an adverse employment action motivated by both the employee’s use of FMLA leave and also other permissible factors. In such cases, if the employee presents evidence that the employer discriminated because of FMLA leave, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that it would have made the same decision absent the impermissible motive.

The standards might change, but for businesses the lesson is the same (and I apologize if you’ve heard this before). Documentation is key. Whether an employer can prove discrimination via a mixed motive or an only motive, it won’t mean a hill of beans to a company if it cannot prove that it had a legitimate reason for what it did.

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For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or