Why it matters

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit gave a plaintiff another chance at her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims, finding that the evidence of pretext was sufficient to reverse summary judgment in favor of the employer. An auditor for The Salvation Army (TSA) for more than a decade, Ebonie Batson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2010. She took her first two-week leave under the FMLA in January 2013, and intermittent leave followed. She met with human resources (HR) to discuss accommodations and provided medical documentation, but she was denied her request to occasionally telecommute and have her travel schedule adjusted. When she returned from her FMLA leave, her job had been eliminated. She interviewed for her former job, but, despite having been told the position was hers, she was instead fired. Batson filed suit, and the district court granted summary judgment on all her claims. The federal appellate panel reversed with regard to her claims for FMLA interference and retaliation under both the FMLA and ADA. Questions from the company’s decision maker during the interview, which focused on Batson’s health, combined with her excellent performance history were sufficient evidence of pretext with regard to the company’s stated reason for her termination, the court held.

Detailed discussion

For more than a decade, Ebonie Batson worked for TSA, consistently receiving positive performance reviews and a promotion in 2006 to senior auditor. Batson was diagnosed with MS in January 2010 and informed her supervisors; around the same time, she was again promoted to audit manager. In 2012, she requested a meeting with her new supervisor to discuss her need for an accommodation because of her MS. Although the meeting was scheduled, it was canceled and rescheduled several times and was never held.

In January 2013, Batson took her first FMLA leave, lasting two weeks. Later that month, she requested intermittent FMLA leave, and her request was granted. Batson also met with the head of HR, requesting adjustments to her travel schedule and the ability to telecommute on occasion, and provided an ADA interactive process questionnaire on her behalf. Those requests were denied.

Not long after, the company made the decision to eliminate Batson’s audit manager position, although the understanding was that Batson would be allowed to resume her former senior auditor position. When she returned from her leave, Batson was told the application process for the senior auditor position was just a formality. Batson was the only person to apply for the position, which was posted internally.

Batson’s supervisor thereafter retired, and her new boss expressed concern about hiring Batson for the senior auditor position. During the interview, this supervisor asked Batson a number of questions related to her health. Frustrated, Batson replied that she knew federal law and believed the supervisor was not permitted to ask about her medical condition. The supervisor then refused to hire Batson based on her “performance in the review,” and Batson was terminated.

In her complaint, Batson included claims under the ADA and the FMLA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on every issue, and Batson appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The panel first affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on Batson’s ADA failure to accommodate claim, concluding that she advanced no evidence establishing that TSA failed to accommodate her disability.

“The problem for Batson is that she has offered no evidence that before her FMLA leave and her termination she needed either of the accommodations she previously had requested generally,” the court said. “We agree with Batson that the record establishes TSA’s intent to deny her accommodation, but without evidence of a specific instance in which she needed an accommodation and was denied one, she cannot establish a failure to accommodate.”

However, the panel reversed with regard to Batson’s FMLA and ADA retaliation claims, finding that Batson had successfully rebutted the company’s reasoning for its termination of her such that a reasonable juror could find that its explanation was pretextual.

Even prior to the interview, the new supervisor indicated that she did not want to hire Batson, the court noted, demonstrating that her reason for not hiring Batson was not entirely based on the interview performance. During the interview, the supervisor repeatedly asked questions about Batson’s health and its impact on her ability to meet the demands of the job, with multiple questions about doctors’ appointments and her ability to travel.

The court also pointed out conflicting evidence about Batson’s interview performance. Batson testified that she was not loud or argumentative, but quiet and hurt, because she felt like she was being interrogated about her medical condition. The other interviewer testified that Batson answered the questions satisfactorily and that he understood her confusion and frustration about the interview. “A reasonable jury could infer from these contrasting descriptions of the interview that [the] failure to hire Batson based on her interview performance was pretextual,” the panel said.

Adding to the possibility of pretext: a decade’s worth of “excellent” performance reviews and her former supervisor’s recommendation that she be hired for the senior auditor position. The court also focused on an email from the new supervisor after the interview in which the supervisor stated that she “need[ed] to think through the rationale” of declining to hire Batson, which could be interpreted to mean that the new supervisor was trying to think of an alternative justification than Batson’s illness.

“Viewing all of this evidence in Batson’s favor … a reasonable jury could infer that [the new supervisor] decided against hiring Batson because of Batson’s illness, not because of her interview or job performance, and that [the employer’s] explanations to the contrary were pretextual,” the panel concluded.

The court also reversed summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim, finding that Batson raised “a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether she would have been terminated regardless of her request for FMLA leave.”

To read the opinion in Batson v. The Salvation Army, click here.