Why it matters

Because the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) limits damages to actual monetary loss suffered by the plaintiff, the Eighth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for an employer. Over the course of her employment, a registered nurse took FMLA leave on seven occasions. After undergoing neck surgery, the employee maximized her FMLA leave and was then unable to return to work, as she was physically unable to perform her job. She was terminated and responded with a lawsuit alleging that the employer interfered with her statutory rights and retaliated against her for taking FMLA-protected leave with a negative evaluation, corrective actions, and a paid suspension. A district court judge granted summary judgment for the employer and the federal appellate panel affirmed. The plaintiff received more than three times the amount of leave required by law prior to her termination, the Eighth Circuit noted, refuting her theory she was denied leave under the statute. Further, she failed to demonstrate actual monetary loss, as she was physically unable to perform her job after neck surgery and was paid for her suspension, leaving her without a loss.

Detailed discussion

Bonnie Hasenwinkel sued Mosaic, her former employer, for allegedly interfering with her rights under the FMLA and for allegedly terminating her employment in violation of the statute. Hasenwinkel worked as a registered nurse for the company, which operates group living and nursing care facilities for adults with intellectual disabilities.

During the course of her employment, Hasenwinkel obtained leave under the FMLA on seven occasions for knee surgery, to treat depression, undergo a heart procedure, and recover from neck surgery. She also took intermittent FMLA leave to attend physical therapy and care for her ailing father.

Mosaic never rejected an explicit request from leave. Hasenwinkel claimed that the employer forced her to return from FMLA leave and punished her for taking it when she was being treated for chronic depression. However, the record contained no evidence that she asked permission to be absent on the dates at issue. Not long after, Hasenwinkel received a "needs improvement" rating in one of 40 evaluative categories.

In addition to this unsatisfactory rating, she claimed that three formal corrective actions were taken against her as retaliation for taking FMLA leave. She was written up for failing to train staff members and for practicing on an expired nursing license and was suspended for one month for failing to follow the company's policy on reporting health concerns. A resident reported mold in the basement of a group home and instead of reporting it to Mosaic, Hasenwinkel used a petri dish to collect and culture the mold herself.

When her suspension was concluded, Mosaic issued Hasenwinkel a written warning and reinstated her with back pay. A few months later, she underwent neck surgery and exhausted her FMLA benefits in the beginning of January 2012. A change in the company's method for calculating FMLA accrual kicked in that month and Hasenwinkel was granted an additional 12 weeks of FMLA leave. After exhausting the additional time, the company provided another 90-day medical leave of absence.

With Hasenwinkel still physically unable to perform her job, Mosaic terminated her employment. A federal district court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the employer and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed.

"[S]ummary judgment was proper because Hasenwinkel exhausted her FMLA benefits," the panel said. "Hasenwinkel does not dispute that Mosaic allowed her to take twelve weeks of FMLA leave. In fact, Hasenwinkel received more than three times the amount of leave required by law: she received a full twelve weeks that expired on January 8, 2012, an additional twelve weeks under Mosaic's revised FMLA accrual policy, and another ninety days (or, nearly thirteen weeks) of medical leave prior to her termination. Hasenwinkel exhausted her FMLA benefits and thus has not been denied any entitled under the statute."

As for interference with her rights by discriminating against her for taking FMLA leave, the court again sided with Mosaic. Hasenwinkel proffered three purportedly adverse acts: her termination, the one-month suspension, and generally unpleasant treatment by supervisors.

Termination is actionable under the FMLA only if the employee was discharged because of her FMLA leave, the Eighth Circuit said, and Hasenwinkel admitted that she was physically unable to return to work, conceding that she has not sought another job since leaving Mosaic and receiving an 80 percent disability rating from the Social Security Administration.

Turning to the suspension, the panel found Hasenwinkel failed to demonstrate actual monetary loss and was unable to recover under the statute. "The closest Hasenwinkel comes to alleging monetary loss is noting in her brief that 'missing a paycheck … can often spell disaster for employees,' " the court wrote. "Yet Hasenwinkel has acknowledged that she was made whole when Mosaic furnished backpay, and she presented no evidence that missing a paycheck caused her to suffer a 'disaster' or any other tangible harm. Because Hasenwinkel has not identified any monetary loss incurred as a result of her suspension, her argument that she is entitled to relief under the FMLA fails as a matter of law."

Finally, the court was not persuaded by Hasenwinkel's contention that she was ostracized by coworkers and treated unpleasantly by superiors. None of the slights she referenced rose to the level of a materially adverse employment action, the panel said, instead involving "petty slights or minor annoyances."

To read the opinion in Hasenwinkel v. Mosaic, click here.