Document your business case to stay within FMLA guidelines

by on March 16, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Avoid FMLA lawsuits after “restructuring” with documentation and a current business case

Gary Tarbe avoided Susan Johnson’s eyes when he told her that he was firing her from her job as comptroller at the Chatham Auto Dealership.

After all, she’d been a good employee, and she was still a little weak from the quadruple bypass surgery she’d undergone months earlier. After taking a 12-week FMLA medical leave, Susan had reported back to work on time per FMLA guidelines. At first, Susan worked part-time, then after a few weeks she returned to full-time duties.

Something had changed

But no sooner had Susan returned to work full time than she realized that something was very different. In her absence, an extra clerk had been hired and the office manager had filled in for Susan. But now that she was back, Susan realized that no one was coming to her for advice or for financial information.

She mentioned this at a meeting. Shortly after that she was summoned to Gary’s office and terminated. “You are obviously punishing me for taking FMLA leave, Gary. That’s against the FMLA guidelines and a violation of the law.”

Gary disagreed. “I never even thought about letting you go until you told me that no one needs you any more,” he said. “In fact, things ran really smoothly around here in your absence. So I’m eliminating your position. From now on the office manager will handle comptroller duties.”

Susan argued that she wouldn’t have been fired had she not taken FMLA leave.

Gary repeated that he’d had no intention of firing her. But he couldn’t help observing that operations were smooth in her absence. Just because she took FMLA leave didn’t guarantee her a job for life. She was fired well after she returned from leave.

Susan sued. Did she win?

The decision

Yes. Susan won her suit against her former employer. A jury found that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave.

In court, Susan’s employer argued that it held her job open for her while she was on leave and that it accommodated her per FMLA guidelines when she returned – part time at first, and then full time.

But Susan missed a lot of work – before, during and after her FMLA leave. During her absence, other people stepped up with better ways to do things. The new systems helped with accounting and other financial problems. And they made Susan’s role less relevant than it had been.

From the employer’s point of view this was part of a legitimate business plan. But the court thought differently. That’s because during the trial, the employer couldn’t produce a business plan or any other documentation to prove that the move was a reorganization, not a reaction to Susan’s leave.

It’s true that she was reinstated before she was fired. But the lack of a reorganization plan made the employer’s motives suspect.

This case teaches that it’s not good enough simply to allow an employee to return from leave before firing her.

If you can’t show a reasonable business justification, it’s going to look like retaliation under FMLA guidelines.

Cite: Brenlla v. Lasorsa Buick Pontiac Chevrolet, Inc., U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 00Civ 5207, 5/28/02. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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