After exhausting leave, employee unable to maintain FMLA suit

A registered nurse (employee) who brought suit against her former employer after she was terminated after exhausting her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.) was unable to make a submissible case of discrimination, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer. The record showed that, at the time of her firing, the employee had already received more than three times the amount of leave as required by the Act and that she was physically unable to return to her job after her leave expired.

FMLA leave. In 2007, the employee worked as a registered nurse for Mosaic, which operates group-living and nursing-care facilities for adults with intellectual disabilities. The employee took FMLA leave on seven occasions for various health issues, including depression and to undergo knee and neck surgery, a heart procedure, and to care for her ailing father. She also took intermittent FMLA leave to attend physical therapy.

Termination. During her last leave period, she exhausted her FMLA benefits, but Mosaic changed its method of calculating leave, so she was afforded an additional 12 weeks of leave. After that, she could not return to work and she was given another 90 days of medical leave. She was unable to return to work at the end of the 90 days and she was thereafter terminated from her employment. Mosaic never refused the employee’s requests for leave, but she alleged that the company forced her to return from leave and subsequently punished her for taking it.

Evaluations. The employee was also absent from work for two days in 2011 due to chronic depression, during which time she did not tell her supervisor that she needed FMLA leave and did not ask for the time off. Upon returning to work, she received an informal evaluation that noted her unapproved absences and lack of follow through with patients. She received a “needs improvement” rating in one of 40 categories on her annual performance review and received three formal corrective actions, including a one-month suspension for unsatisfactory work performance. She also received other written warnings for failing to train staff members, practicing nursing on an expired license, and for numerous documentation errors. The employee admitted that the events occurred, but alleged that the punishments were unfair and that she was treated differently due to her FMLA leave.

Lawsuit. The employee sued Mosaic, claiming that it violated FMLA and state law by denying her benefits and discriminating against her for taking leave and that she was terminated in violation of public policy. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mosaic and the employee appealed.

Denied leave. Mosaic was entitled to summary judgment as to the employee’s claim that it interfered with the FMLA rights by denying her request for leave in May 2011 because her FMLA leave had been exhausted and she had received more than three times the amount of leave that is required by the Act.

Discrimination. Mosaic was also entitled to summary judgment as to the employee’s claims that it discriminated against her for taking leave. The employee admitted that she was physically unable to work after her FMLA benefits expired and therefore, her termination was lawful (29 C.F.R. Sec. 825.216(c)). Additionally, the employee presented no evidence to demonstrate that she suffered a tangible loss caused by her suspension and acknowledged that she was given back pay for her suspension. The employee’s claims that Mosaic treated her unfairly and ostracized her from her coworkers did not amount to a materially adverse employment action that would deter someone from exercising FMLA rights.

SOURCE: Hasenwinkel v. Mosaic, (CA-6), No. 14-3786, December 29, 2015.

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