In this week’s Alabama Law Weekly Update, we review two decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Both decisions address claims which arose out of employment issues.

Sparks v. Sunshine Mills, Inc., Case No. 13-14922 (11th Cir. September 12, 2014) (holding that notice to employer of need for FMLA-qualifying leave required to prove FMLA interference and retaliation claims).

D. Sparks began working at Sunshine Mills, Inc. in 2006. Throughout Sparks’ employment, he received multiple “write-ups” for improperly performing his work. While sweeping one day at work, Sparks stepped into a hole and twisted his ankle.  He saw a doctor, received an ankle brace and pain medication, and returned to work a few days later with no restrictions.  Sparks then filed a claim for worker’s compensation benefits.  A few weeks later, Sparks again saw his doctor.  After this visit with his doctor, Sparks told his supervisor it looked “very possible he was going to have to have surgery.”  A few days later Sparks received another “write-up” for another incident involving the performance of his work.  Two days after receiving this “write up,” Sunshine terminated Sparks’ employment.

Sparks subsequently filed a lawsuit regarding the termination of his employment alleging, among other things, that Sunshine violated the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by allegedly interfering with his right to take FMLA leave and allegedly retaliating against him after he stated his potential need for FMLA leave.  The trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of Sunshine on all of Sparks’ claims.  The trial court judge found that Sparks’ FMLA claims failed because Sparks did not put Sunshine on notice of his intent to invoke his right to take FMLA leave.  Sparks appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit explained that the FMLA requires employees to provide 30 days of advance notice of leave when the need to take leave is foreseeable.  The notice must sufficiently “make the employer aware that the employee needs FMLA-qualifying leave, and the anticipated timing and duration of the leave.”  The Eleventh Circuit agreed that Sparks’ statement to his supervisor, that it was “very possible” he would need surgery, did not constitute sufficient notice to Sunshine that Sparks needed FMLA-qualifying leave.  As a result, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court judge’s decision.

Archie v. Frank Cockrell Body Shop, Inc., Case No. 13-14108 (11th Cir. September 16, 2014) (holding that discriminatory discipline claims require plaintiff to establish that similarly situated employees who engaged in same or similar misconduct did not receive same discipline).

E. Archie, an African-American male, worked for Frank Cockrell Body Shop, Inc. (“Cockrell”). In 2011, Archie was involved in an altercation at work with another employee of Cockrell. After the altercation, Archie left work and did not come back. Archie claimed Cockrell’s human resources manager fired Archie that day for “placing his hands on another employee.” Archie then sued Cockrell for allegedly discriminating against him on the basis of race.  Archie argued that two white employees of Cockrell had been involved in a similar altercation previously but neither had been fired.  The trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of Cockrell on all of Archie’s claims.  Archie appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit explained that, among other things, Archie was required to prove Cockrell “treated similarly situated employees outside of his class more favorably.”  Regarding discriminatory discipline, this requires “showing a similarly situated employee, who is engaged in the same or similar misconduct,” did not receive similar discipline.  The Eleventh Circuit stated the misconduct must be “nearly identical” so judges will not simply be “second-guessing employers’ reasonable decisions.”  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court judge’s decision because there was evidence indicating that, in the previous altercation involving white employees, both employees were equally at fault.  The Eleventh Circuit explained this was different than the evidence relating to Archie’s altercation and, as a result, the previous altercation did not establish that the same or similar misconduct had been treated differently.