Employee on FMLA Leave May Have to Explain Misconduct

By Jeffrey Rhodes July 30, 2019
Employee on FMLA Leave May Have to Explain Misconduct

​An employer did not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it fired an employee who was on FMLA leave for not explaining her misuse of its equipment for a competitor company, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff was a training director at Centre LifeLink Emergency Medical Services. During her employment with LifeLink, she started her own business, Red Diamond Safety, which competed with LifeLink by offering CPR certification classes and other services similar to those LifeLink offered. In May 2012, just six months after the plaintiff established Red Diamond, the plaintiff's supervisor discovered the existence of the competing business.

LifeLink then asked the plaintiff to sign a noncompete agreement as a stipulation to continue working as training director. Until that time, LifeLink never provided the plaintiff with an employment contract. Despite signing the noncompete agreement, the plaintiff used materials from LifeLink for services provided by Red Diamond.

The plaintiff obtained through a co-worker at least 15 of LifeLink's CPR certification cards to distribute to participants in Red Diamond's classes. The plaintiff also took several of LifeLink's manikins in March 2012 after they were damaged in a flood. LifeLink's insurance policy required that the manikins be removed and destroyed, but the plaintiff instead took them to her home.

On June 3, 2013, while the plaintiff was on vacation, she was injured in a bicycle accident. Due to her dislocated hip and head injury, she took FMLA leave, which was scheduled to run from June 12 through July 29, 2013. On July 3, 2013, her supervisor discovered that in addition to other breaches of the noncompete agreement, the plaintiff intended to use flood-damaged manikins for Red Diamond services.

The supervisor met with one of LifeLink's human resources consultants and the company's general counsel. On July 10, 2013, the general counsel sent a letter to the plaintiff requesting explanations within 10 days for the apparent violations of the noncompete agreement. The plaintiff replied to the letter by e-mail on July 21, 2013, one day after the deadline of July 20, 2013, and did not answer any of LifeLink's inquiries. Rather, the plaintiff stated that she was in the process of seeking legal counsel.

On July 23, 2013, LifeLink's legal counsel replied and stated that the plaintiff's response was insufficient. As a result, LifeLink sent the plaintiff a letter that day firing her, effective immediately, before her FMLA leave expired six days later.

The plaintiff sued in federal court, claiming that LifeLink interfered with her rights under the FMLA. LifeLink filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the claim, which the district court granted.

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

On appeal, the 3rd Circuit determined that the plaintiff could not show a relationship between LifeLink's decision to fire her for failing to respond to its inquiries and the exercise of her rights under the FMLA. The plaintiff argued that given her medical restrictions while on FMLA leave, LifeLink placed an unreasonable performance expectation on her when it requested that she respond to its letter within 10 days.

However, the 3rd Circuit noted that LifeLink had not denied the plaintiff any FMLA rights because of her failure to timely respond. It further reasoned that, while employers cannot require employees on FMLA leave to remain on call or continue working, the FMLA does not provide employees with a right to be entirely left alone. In this case, LifeLink made a one-time, discrete inquiry unrelated to the plaintiff's use of FMLA leave that did not interfere with her rights. Thus, the 3rd Circuit upheld dismissal of the claim.

Reagan v. Centre LifeLink Emergency Medical Services Inc., 3rd Cir., No. 17-3056 (May 24, 2019).

Professional Pointer: While employers must avoid making an employee on FMLA leave perform work or serve in an on-call capacity, they can insist upon prompt explanations of specific allegations of misconduct by the employee, including serious breaches of policy.

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

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Family and Medical Leave Act.]



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