Employee Fired for Touching Co-Worker Can Pursue Claim

By Jeffrey Rhodes April 5, 2017
Employee Fired for Touching Co-Worker Can Pursue Claim

An employee who claimed that he was fired for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), rather than for allegedly touching a female co-worker inappropriately as the company stated, can pursue his retaliation claim, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled.

McLane Eastern Inc. hired Antonio Murphy in November 2012 to work full-time at its Jessup, Pa., location. Murphy worked picking products off various conveyor belts and packaging them into shipping totes. During most of his employment, he received satisfactory performance appraisals and had no performance-related write-ups or discipline issues.

Murphy has demyelinating disease, severe vertigo and an inoperable brain tumor. In July 2014, he passed out at work. An ambulance arrived and transported him to the hospital. Because of this medical event, Murphy requested FMLA leave, which was approved. Thereafter, in August 2014, he used one day of medical leave.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

On Sept. 18, 2014, Murphy fell behind at his assembly line station, causing his line to back up. Two McLane employees assisted him; one of them "stormed off" after completing a tote. Murphy was then called into the HR manager's office and told that a female employee had claimed that he had touched her in an inappropriate manner. Murphy adamantly denied the allegation. The company immediately sent him home and terminated his employment on Sept. 22, 2014.

In response, Murphy sued for retaliation under the FMLA. The company filed a motion to dismiss.

The company argued that Murphy did not have sufficient evidence of causation to support a retaliatory discharge claim under the FMLA. Murphy countered that the company had a history of discouraging use of FMLA leave by firing employees with disabilities or those seeking FMLA leave. He also claimed that, in August 2014, he initially requested multiple medical leave days under the FMLA but later limited his leave to only one day because he believed the company wanted to get rid of him.

The court carefully considered the nearness of time between Murphy's exercise of his FMLA rights and his termination of employment. While this factor is not the only consideration with respect to establishing causation, a very short span of time between the exercise of rights and termination of employment can satisfy the plaintiff's initial burden of stating a claim.

The court noted that the time span between Murphy's exercise of FMLA rights and his termination was not so short as to alone establish causation. However, viewing Murphy's evidence in the most favorable light, the court noted that the company terminated Murphy within one month of his taking his most recent FMLA leave in August 2014, which was a relatively short length of time.

Because Murphy also claimed that other employees were discouraged from taking FMLA leave and that he had not touched the co-worker, he raised a reasonable inference that the company's reason for his termination was pretextual. Thus, Murphy's allegations were sufficient to support his FMLA retaliation claim, and the court denied the motion to dismiss the claim.

Murphy v. McLane Eastern Inc., M.D. Pa., No. 3:16cv1055 (Feb. 28, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Employers sometimes apply strict zero-tolerance policies to allegations of physical assault or abuse. While such policies have merit, they should not be applied mechanically. Even with claims of serious misconduct, employers must conduct a thorough and impartial investigation and evaluate the evidence closely to avoid potential legal claims.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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