In response an employee's request for additional FMLA leave, the employer allegedly asked "Does this mean you're going to take another three months off?" Plaintiff had a history of FMLA leave usage, including taking 3 months off in the preceding year following foot surgery. The following day, the supervisor sent a letter to the employee stating:
The employee was terminated four days later, before she took any FMLA leave. The employee sued alleging retaliation and interference with FMLA rights. The employer moved for summary judgment arguing that the employee was terminated for a reason independent of the FMLA (bad attitude).
In denying summary judgment to the employer, the court noted the the supervisor's statement was susceptible to various interpretations depending on the tone it ws given, "from solicitous of Plaintiff's well-being, to merely information-seeking, to annoyed or resentful." Similarly, the court noted that the letter could be reasonably construed as simply informing Plaintiff of her remaining FMLA leave time, or as an expression of displeasure of her intent to request more FMLA leave. For purposes of summary judgment, where all inferences favor the non-moving party, the court went with the latter interpretation.
The court opined that the combination of the supervisor's statement, the threatening letter, and the fact that the employee was terminated four days later before she could take any FMLA leave, suggested that the employer was displeased with the employee's request for additional FMLA leave. The court noted that the FMLA prohibits an employer from interfering with or retaliating for an employee's attempt to exercise FMLA rights.
Almeida v. Althena Health Care Associates, Inc., No. 3:07cv517 (PCD), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15103 (D. Conn. Feb. 26, 2009).
Comment: A common misconception by employers is that FMLA protections end once the employee uses up their 12-week entitlement. The Almeida cases illustrates that this is simply not the case. How an employer treats an employee's use of unprotected, non-FMLA leave may, in some circumstances, violate the FMLA. This is particularly true where, as in Almeida, the employer threatens the employee with termination for the first absence after FMLA leave is exhausted, followed a few days later by terminating the employee anyway before any FMLA leave is used.
The denial of summary judgment does not mean that the employer will ultimately be found liable for violating the FMLA. It does, however, make resolution of the claim, whether by settlement or trial, exponentially more expensive and time consuming. This expense, moreover, may have been avoided had supervisors been properly trained about employee FMLA rights and protections. As a free practice tip, putting your illegal threats in writing is something to be avoided.