Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Winning the battle but losing the war in FMLA cases

The FMLA allows for two different theories of recovery—interference and retaliation. Interference is when an employer denies an FMLA benefit to which an employee is entitled and of which the employee provided notice. Retaliation is when an employee’s use of a protected FMLA right causes an employer’s adverse action. These claims are mutually exclusive, and a terminated employee can succeed on one and fail on the other.

Consider, for example, Platt v. Lamrite West, Inc. (N.D. Ohio 8/17/11). Platt involved an employee terminated for violating an employer’s call-off policy after making a request for FMLA leave. The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the employee’s interference claim, but granted summary judgment and dismissed the employee’s retaliation claim.

On the interference claim, the court concluded that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the employer’s FMLA paperwork modified the call-in procedure. At the same time, however, the court concluded that there was no issue of fact on the employee’s retaliation claim:

He … would have been terminated for violating this policy even if he had not requested FMLA leave…. Between 2007 and 2010, 56 warehouse employees were terminated by Defendant for failing to comply with Defendant’s attendance policies. Like Plaintiff, these former employees were terminated for failing to report to work or notify Defendant for three consecutive work days. Unlike Plaintiff, these former employees did not seek FMLA leave, further supporting Defendant’s proffered non-retaliatory grounds for termination.

As the court pointed out, holding the employee to the call-off policy “may create an interference claim, [but] it does not give rise to a retaliation claim.” Thus, you can terminate an employee for exercising an FMLA right without retaliating against him or her, so long as you do not treat the employee any differently than any other employee. However, that termination still might give rise to a claim under FMLA for interfering with the exercise of FMLA rights. In other words, you might win the retaliation battle against a terminated employee, but ultimately lose the FMLA war.