Vanessa McFadden worked as a legal secretary for a partner in the Ballard Spahr law firm. In 2002, she asked for and was granted FMLA leave to care for her husband suffering from cancer. She alleges that Ballard Spahr interfered with her ability to take additional leave by misinforming her about her entitlement and by harassing her for taking too much time off. As a result, she took less time off then she was entitled to take, and paid her sister to care for her husband when she did not take off work. In 2003, McFadden began to have her own health problems. After exhausting all available paid and unpaid leave, she was terminated when she indicated that she could not perform the essential functions of her secretarial position on her return to work. She sued, alleging, among other claims, interference with her FMLA rights. The trial court awarded summary judgment to Ballard Spahr. McFadden appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
McFadden claimed that Ballard Spahr interfered with her FMLA rights by misinforming her about the amount of leave to which she was entitled and by pressuring her not to take leave. The Court found that McFadden could establish interference even though she was never denied leave by demonstrating that her employer "interfered with" her exercise of FMLA rights and that she suffered monetary losses as a result. By paying her sister to care for her husband when she was lead to believe that she could not take time off to care for him herself, McFadden could, the court found, demonstrate that she suffered monetary damages as a result, allegedly, of the interference by Ballard Spahr. The Federal Circuit reversed the award of summary judgment and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Comment: Many courts have awarded summary judgment to an employer where the the employee was granted all the leave they requested. The theory being that an employer who grants all leave requested does not interfere with the employee's right to leave. In McFadden, the court carved out an exception to that general principal where the employee can demonstrate that they would have taken more available FMLA leave had the employer either not misinformed the employee of the amount of leave available, and/or had not chilled the employee's willingness to take additional leave through harassing comments. McFadden satisfied the damages requirement by demonstrating that she paid someone else to care for her seriously ill husband during times when she would have taken leave but refrained due to the interference by her employer.
McFadden v. Ballard Spahr Andrews Ingersoll LLP, NO. 08-7140 (Fed. Cir. June 29, 2010)