Supervisor’s Remarks Give Life to FMLA Retaliation Claim

 

By Ronald Tang November 19, 2019
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Supervisor’s Remarks Give Life to FMLA Retaliation Claim

​A nurse who was fired after patients complained about her behavior during at-home visits may go to trial on her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation claim. The claim advanced based partly on her supervisor's reproachful remarks and conduct toward her after she took leave, according to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

The employer used a third-party FMLA administrator to handle and approve FMLA leave requests. On March 22, 2016, the plaintiff requested and received preapproval to take intermittent FMLA leave for her own serious health condition. The plaintiff also sought and received approval to take leave on April 8, 2016, for a bone marrow biopsy. According to the plaintiff, she was required to report her FMLA absences only to the third-party administrator.

The plaintiff maintained that on March 22, 2016, her supervisor confronted her about scheduling leave for April 8, 2016, because no other nurse could cover the plaintiff's shift. According to the plaintiff, her supervisor directed her to obtain the supervisor's approval for any absence. Further, the plaintiff said, the supervisor alleged the plaintiff had not been a team player by scheduling her FMLA leave through the administrator without first seeking the supervisor's approval, because once the third-party administrator approved the request, the supervisor could not deny it.

One of the plaintiff's primary functions was to provide in‑home intravenous infusion medical treatment to patients. On April 6, 2016, during her shift at a patient's home, the plaintiff fell into a refrigerator, left used needles on the floor and coffee table, and left bloody gauze on the couch, according to another nurse. The plaintiff claimed she requested medical leave for the rest of the day because she felt ill. Her supervisor allegedly denied the request because she had no one else to cover her patients.

The plaintiff's next patient asked her to leave within minutes of her arrival because the patient thought she was under the influence. This patient was so concerned about the plaintiff's ability to drive that she and her husband called 9-1-1. The plaintiff was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence.

The plaintiff was eventually transported to the hospital, and blood and urine tests indicated she did not have any alcohol in her system. She tested positive for amphetamines but claimed the only amphetamine she had in her system was her prescription medication for attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The hospital diagnosed the plaintiff with an altered mental status resulting from dehydration and anemia related to her medical condition.

On April 8, 2016, the plaintiff's employer placed her on leave pending an investigation based on complaints it received from her patients regarding her behavior on April 6. On April 19, 2016, the plaintiff was fired allegedly for violating company policy, including engaging in unprofessional behavior and providing inadequate patient care.

The plaintiff sued the employer, claiming it retaliated against her for her FMLA leave request and discriminated against her based on her disability, in violation of federal and state law. The employer sought summary judgment on all claims.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

The district court granted summary judgment on the disability-discrimination claims. The court credited the employer's reason for firing the plaintiff and determined there was no evidence the employer's true motive for discharging her was her disability.

The district court denied summary judgment on the FMLA retaliation claim and allowed it to proceed to trial. The court noted that unlike for the disability-discrimination claims, the plaintiff needed to prove only that the termination was at least partially motivated by an intent to retaliate against her for requesting leave. Based on evidence that the plaintiff's supervisor reprimanded her for following company protocol in requesting leave through the FMLA administrator rather than the supervisor, told the plaintiff that she was not a team player for doing so, and resisted the plaintiff's leave request on April 6, the court found that a jury could reasonably conclude the termination was motivated, at least in part, by an intent to retaliate. The court also noted that the plaintiff's termination occurred shortly after she requested leave.

Mancini v. Accredo Health Grp. Inc., D. Conn., No. 3:17-CV-01625 (Sept. 4, 2019).

Professional Pointer: This case serves as a reminder of the importance of training managers to follow company policies regarding leave requests, and to refrain from making any remarks that could be construed as unlawful opposition toward an employee who is requesting or taking leave.

Ronald Tang is an attorney with Marr Jones & Wang LLP, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Honolulu.

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