The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) prohibits employers from interfering with an employee’s right to take leave for which that employee is eligible under the Act, and from retaliating against individuals who claim benefits under the statute. Recently, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal of an employee’s FMLA lawsuit, and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. A jury will now decide the issue of whether the individual’s employment termination was based upon his announcement that he was going to take four to six weeks of leave time for knee replacement surgery. A supervisor’s e-mail that references an upcoming medical leave will be a primary element of the employee’s claim. Shaffer v. American Medical Association, 7th Cir., No. 10-2117, October 18, 2011.
William Shaffer first worked for the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1999. Although he resigned a year later, the AMA rehired him in 2004 as a contract employee. In 2005, he was hired as a full-time employee, and advanced to become the AMA’s Director of Leadership Communications, reporting to supervisor Michael Lynch. In August 2008, the AMA began cost-saving measures, including a request to all departments to reduce budgets and, ultimately, to eliminate positions. In October 2008, Lynch was contacted by the Chief Marketing Officer, Marietta Parenti, who requested a recommendation regarding the elimination of one position in Lynch’s group. It was Lynch’s plan to eliminate the Communication Manager position held by Peter Friedman, based on certain business-related reasons. On October 28, Parenti asked Lynch whether it made sense to eliminate Shaffer’s position, as well. Lynch responded that further eliminations would not be in the AMA’s best interest at that time.
On November 20, 2008, Shaffer informed Lynch that he was planning to take 4 to 6 weeks off in January in order to undergo and recover from knee replacement surgery. On November 30, Lynch sent an e-mail to Parenti, explaining that he had re-thought his recommendation, and now believed that the AMA should eliminate Shaffer’s position and retain Friedman. The e-mail apologized for his “11th hour change of heart,” and specifically stated that the team already was “preparing for [Shaffer’s] short-term leave in January, so his departure should not have any immediate negative impact.” On December 4, Shaffer was notified by Lynch and Harvey Daniels, an AMA HR representative, that his position was being eliminated and that his employment would end on January 4, 2009.
Less than a month later, an after receiving a letter from Shaffer’s attorney, the AMA’s in-house lawyer met with Daniels to let him know that litigation was possible on the matter. The next day, Daniels typed up handwritten notes that he had taken regarding his earlier discussions with Lynch, back-dating them to November 25, 2008. The typed notes stated that Shaffer’s position was eliminated because Lynch could have the speech writing staff report directly to him, making Shaffer’s position redundant. He then shredded the original notes.
Shaffer filed a lawsuit in federal court. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the AMA, and dismissed his claim. Shafer then appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which analyzed the case to determine whether or not there was a genuine factual issue for trial. The Court found that Shaffer was eligible for FMLA leave, and that he had provided notice to Lynch of his intention to take that leave. Prior to that notice, there was no mention of elimination of Shaffer’s position; after that notice, he was targeted for termination. Based upon those facts, coupled with Lynch’s e-mail to Parenti in which the proposed leave was mentioned, the Seventh Circuit determined that a reasonable jury could conclude that Shaffer’s exercise of his right to take leave under the FMLA was a motivating factor in the decision to eliminate his position. It then reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the case.
While the Court also pointed to the different explanations given at different times for Shaffer’s termination, it clearly was Lynch’s e-mail to Parenti – which specifically mentioned Shaffer’s request for leave – that created the impetus for the lawsuit, and the foundation on which Shaffer’s FMLA claim rests. While it is possible that Shaffer’s proposed leave had no actual impact on his termination, the e-mail allows Shaffer to argue that Lynch was considering that leave when the decision was made to eliminate Shaffer’s position. This situation is a clear example of the need for supervisor training on the FMLA. Supervisors and managers should be informed that a claim of interference with FMLA rights does not require proof of actual “intent” to interfere, but requires only that plaintiffs prove that the employer somehow denied an exercise of rights under the Act. If an individual can produce evidence that he was fired to prevent his exercise of FMLA rights, he can succeed on an interference theory under that Act.