Federal courts recently confirmed that FMLA leave status is not a shield from termination for an employee when legitimate performance issues are uncovered.
On July 11, 2013, the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs claims in North Carolina, upheld a Maryland lower court’s dismissal of a wrongful discharge lawsuit filed by a former employee against their employer. The Court ruled that evidence of previously unknown poor performance is a sufficient basis for terminating an employee, even if that evidence is discovered during the employee’s leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The plaintiff was a full-time finance and benefits coordinator at The Arc of Prince George’s County Inc. (The Arc), whose job duties included applying for and processing initial benefits applications for clients under the food stamp program and Social Security, as well as assisting with renewals and redeterminations of those benefits for the Arc’s clients. While the plaintiff was on medical leave, co-workers who were covering her duties discovered that many of The Arc’s food stamp-eligible clients were no longer receiving benefits. When the plaintiff returned from leave, she was directed to ensure that the necessary paperwork was completed so that those individuals could continue receiving benefits.
In her subsequent annual performance review, the plaintiff was rated “satisfactory” in 13 of 14 categories and “above average” in the remaining category. However, the following month, The Arc learned that certain food stamp-eligible clients still were not receiving benefits and the plaintiff was again instructed to correct the situation.
Thereafter, the plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident and was granted a three-week FMLA leave. Once again, while co-workers were performing the plaintiff’s duties, they discovered many more clients who were no longer receiving benefits because of the plaintiff’s failure to submit renewal or redetermination paperwork during the weeks before she went on FMLA leave.
After the plaintiff returned from medical leave, she was placed on administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation. During that investigation, the plaintiff took FMLA leave for another three weeks. Also during the investigation, The Arc determined that the plaintiff had failed to obtain and maintain benefits for 99 of 160 eligible clients. Her employment was thereafter terminated.
The plaintiff filed a complaint in federal district court in Maryland, alleging that her discharge constituted unlawful interference with her rights under the FMLA and retaliation for her exercise of those rights. The district court granted The Arc’ motion for summary judgment on both claims, holding that because the plaintiff would not have been able to keep her job even if she had not taken FMLA leave, she was unable to show that The Arc had interfered with her FMLA rights. It further held that the plaintiff had failed to establish that The Arc’s explanation for her discharge was a pretext for FMLA retaliation.
The 4 th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that there could be no dispute that the dismissal was based on the plaintiff’s performance issues. It is important to note, however, that had specific and objective documentation of the plaintiff’s errors not existed, and had these errors not been discovered by individuals outside of the termination decision-making process, the Court’s decision could possibly have been different.
If you have questions or concerns about this federal court decision or other legal issues, please feel free to contact Connie Carrigan at email@example.com