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N.Y.: Clerk Fired for Poor Performance, Not in Retaliation for Taking FMLA Leave

By Rosemarie Lally  8/20/2014
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A court clerk was fired for not effectively managing a backlog of traffic tickets and not in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as she claimed, a federal court ruled.

Sonya Lehtinen was employed by the town of Greenport, N.Y., as a court clerk responsible for entering data into a New York State computer system for traffic tickets in default for non-payment, keeping up with error reports from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and Division of Criminal Justice Services, processing payments, and interacting with members of the public.

The employee took leave on Nov. 25, 2010, to have knee replacement surgery after her leave request was approved. She was terminated on Feb. 21, 2011, at which time she was 60 years old. At the time of her termination, she had exhausted all of her personal, sick and vacation time.

Lehtinen claimed that during the meeting in which she was terminated, Judge Robert Brenzel complained that she was too slow in entering data, a complaint that she understood to be based upon her age because her inability to keep up with the volume of work "wasn't an issue before" she was dismissed. She subsequently brought an action against the town for interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act and for age and disability discrimination under New York law.

The evidence showed that the employee was terminated for poor performance, the extent of which was not fully realized until she was out on FMLA leave, the court said. "Defendant has come forward with a neutral reason for terminating her employment: her inability to meet the demands of the position of court clerk and, in particular, a significant backlog of scofflaw tickets, error report entries, and unaccounted funds creditable to offenders and payable to the State Comptroller's office.”

The employee acknowledged that she had trouble keeping up with the volume of mail. In some instances, individuals had paid fines that she had failed to enter in the system, resulting in the unwarranted suspension of their driver's licenses.

It was not until a substitute clerk stepped in to do Lehtinen's job during her absence that the full extent of the ticket-processing problems became evident, Brenzel testified. Prior to the employee’s leave, he had complained to her about unprocessed tickets "in boxes on the floor, on the counter, just all over the court clerk's office.” Further, the substitute clerk told Brenzel that Lehtinen had asked her to enter into the system a plastic bag full of tickets hidden behind a soda box and to return unprocessed tickets to the hiding place so Brenzel would not know about them. The substitute clerk, who was hired as a full-time employee after Lehtinen’s termination, eventually had her schedule reduced to part-time because she was able to accomplish everything that had to be done in three and a half days a week.

The employer also cited a number of incidents in which the employee acted unprofessionally in dealing with the public.

Lehtinen failed to provide any evidence that the town's stated explanation for her termination was merely a pretext masking impermissible retaliatory motives, the court said. The record indicates that the only verified connection between Lehtinen's medical leave and her termination was that they occurred at the same time. "Not only does it appear that plaintiff was terminated for her deficient performance, but there is not a scintilla of evidence for concluding that her 'leave' played any role in this employment decision," the court said, granting the town’s motion for dismissal.

Lehtinen v. Town of Greenport, N.D. N.Y., 1:12-cv-393 (July 18, 2014).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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