Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) in 1993. The FMLA provides eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave. Eligible employees can take leave for specified family and medical reasons, such as for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a sick family member, or for the employee’s own serious health condition. The FMLA has many nuances and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania examined some of them in a recent opinion. In Mark Matero v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. & Chipotle Services, LLC, 17-cv-05529, 2018 WL 4510494 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 20, 2018), the Court denied summary judgment to Chipotle on claims filed by a former employee for, among other things, retaliation under the FMLA.
The plaintiff was hired in September of 2015 as an area manager overseeing the operations of multiple Chipotle restaurants in the Philadelphia suburbs. He took leave from his position to have back surgery. Upon the plaintiff’s return to work, he restated his medical restrictions, which had been communicated to his manager during his leave. His employment was terminated the same day. He filed claims against Chipotle alleging discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as retaliation and interference claims under the FMLA. Prior to his termination, the plaintiff had one review, which was favorable, he received the highest percentage raise of all the area managers in his field group, and he also had received a bonus.
Chipotle argued that the plaintiff was not terminated due to his leave or medical needs, but for his failure to complete mandatory cash audits, train teams and general managers, and report health code violations. The day before plaintiff left for surgery, he reportedly required a general manager to return to work two days after vomiting on the job in violation of Chipotle's three-day mandatory absence policy for ill employees. Chipotle argued that the incident with the general manager ultimately led to the final decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. However, the record reflected that the plaintiff had never been counseled regarding the alleged performance issues before or during his leave, and many of the alleged grounds for his termination were developed while he was on medical leave.
The Court held that the plaintiff succeeded in establishing a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA. While the Court held that Chipotle set forth a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the plaintiff’s termination, it held that based upon the record established, reasonable jurors could either believe or disbelieve the stated reason or believe retaliation and/or discrimination were more likely than not the motivating or determinative causes of the plaintiff’s termination the day he returned from leave.
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show: (1) he invoked his right to FMLA-qualifying leave; (2) he suffered an adverse employment decision; and (3) the adverse decision was causally related to his leave.
Chipotle disputed the first and the third elements. Chipotle argued that the plaintiff did not request FMLA leave. However, the court quickly dismissed that argument by holding that an employee need not mention FMLA explicitly to invoke his or her right to leave. The critical question is how the information conveyed to the employer is reasonably interpreted. If the employer's initial notice reasonably informs the employer that the FMLA may apply, it is the employer's burden to request additional information, if necessary. The record in the case showed that the plaintiff's supervisor was aware that he had a serious medical impairment and that he needed to go on leave as a result of that medical impairment. There was also testimony that it was believed that the plaintiff’s absence would be covered by the FMLA.
As to the third element, Chipotle argued that the plaintiff failed to show a causal link between his leave for back surgery and his termination. However, the Court held that the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence to create an inference that a causative link existed between his FMLA leave and his termination. An unduly suggestive temporal proximity between participation in a protected activity and a termination is alone sufficient to defeat summary judgment. The plaintiff had argued that the temporal proximity between his last protected activity and the date he returned to work with medical restrictions warranted consideration. The Court agreed, holding that the plaintiff's last protected activity was his return to work with a request for accommodations, which was the same day he was terminated. As a result, this temporal proximity was enough to raise an inference of retaliation.
Key Takeaways: It is important for employers to ensure that they are taking action on employee misconduct as soon as practicable. This is especially true when an employee has or may take leave under the FMLA. Employers should ensure that they do not leave themselves exposed to a potential FMLA retaliation claim because they waited until an employee was on a protected leave before taking adverse employment action against him or her for misconduct pre-dating the FMLA leave. The opinion also highlights the fact that employees do not need to say any magic words to request leave under the FMLA. Rather, when an employee provides sufficient information to suggest that the FMLA may apply, the onus is on the employer to request any additional information necessary to make a determination. Therefore, employers should make sure that their human resources and management staff fully understand the FMLA.
If you have questions about the FMLA, we are available to help. Our Employment Law attorneys are available to assist with any questions or matters you may have. We also provide training on topics such as the FMLA, the ADA, sexual harassment, and more. Contact Patrice Turenne or Dianne Moretzsohn to learn more.