An employer fires an employee after the company has approved him for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The employee begins taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single qualifying reason. Then, the employer fires the employee. So the employee claims FMLA interference.
What exactly is FMLA interference? How does an employee prove it? And what are some defenses?
For today’s lesson, I’ll use this recent federal court decision from Florida as a point of reference. The defendant approved the plaintiff for intermittent FMLA leave between July 2019 and October 2020.
In July 2020, the defendant discovered that the plaintiff had mistakenly approved a payment that led to a $10,000 loss for the employer. So, the defendant issued the plaintiff a written warning and warned that additional offenses could lead to termination. Following standard company practice, the defendant’s compliance team further audited the plaintiff’s performance and discovered that he violated the terms of the warning by improperly handling a separate, subsequent matter. The latter violation of the warning’s terms led the defendant to terminate the plaintiff’s employment.
The disciplines happened when the defendant had approved (and the plaintiff used) intermittent FMLA leave. So, the plaintiff viewed the employer’s actions as FMLA interference.
As the name indicates, an employer cannot interfere with an employee’s FMLA rights. Unlike an FMLA retaliation claim, a plaintiff alleging FMLA interference does not have to demonstrate that the defendant bore any animosity against him for taking FMLA. Instead, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant denied him a benefit to which FMLA entitled him.
In this particular case, the plaintiff could not show that the defendant deprived him of any FMLA leave during his employment. In other words, each time the plaintiff needed time off for his serious health condition, the defendant afforded it.
But what about the termination? Is there a tenable argument that the defendant fired the plaintiff to stop him from taking additional FMLA leave later? Theoretically, that could support an FMLA interference claim — in substance, more of an FMLA retaliation claim. But the FMLA provides no more protection against termination unrelated to FMLA leave than the employee would have had if he had not requested leave. Consequently, the defendant did not interfere with the plaintiff’s FMLA rights when it applied its work rules and fired him, which it would have done regardless of any request for FMLA leave.
Thus, there is no FMLA interference here and the defendant wins.