Fired employee’s FMLA win affirmed on liability but $160K award vacated for jury trial on damages

Although the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for an employee as to liability on her FMLA entitlement and retaliation claims, in which she alleged that she was terminated after giving her employer notice of her need for a reduced schedule during her pregnancy, the court vacated and remanded the award of $49,769 in back pay, $30,876 in pre-judgment interest on the back pay, and $80,645 in liquidated damages. Because fact disputes existed, the district court abused its discretion by not permitting a jury to determine damages.

The employee began working for the property management firm on November 17, 2008, as a full-time caretaker at one of its properties. After discovering she was pregnant in the summer of 2009, she purportedly contacted the company’s HR department to ask about post-birth benefits and leave. However, no one returned her calls.

Limited hours. When she began experiencing abdominal pain in October 2009, her doctor provided a note stating that she could not vacuum or mop. She then missed work on November 9, 10, and 12 due to pain. On November 13, she worked 4.25 hours. That same day, she gave the company another doctor’s note limiting her to working no more than 20 hours per week. When she arrived to work on November 16, she was terminated because the company “was unable to accommodate the work restrictions provided by her physician.” The termination decision was purportedly made on November 13.

Lower court proceedings. The employee then sued, asserting that her employer not only interfered with her FMLA rights, but retaliated against her after she requested those rights. The district court granted her motion for summary judgment as to her entitlement claim and sua sponte granted summary judgment for her on her retaliation claim. The parties filed cross motions to alter or amend the judgment and after upholding its initial ruling, the court awarded damages to the employee of over $160,000.

Entitlement claim. On appeal, the employer first argued that she was not an eligible employee under the FMLA because she had been employed for less than a year at the time she was terminated. Disagreeing, the Eighth Circuit observed that she began her employment on November 17, 2008. Thus, she needed to work until November 16, 2009, to satisfy the 12-month requirement. The letter informing her of her termination, which was dated November 16, 2009, stated: “Our records will reflect today as [the employee’s] last day worked.” Her time card for November 16 also showed that she worked that day. Noting that November 17 would have been the first day of her second year with the company, the court found that she satisfied the 12-month requirement and was an eligible employee as defined by the FMLA.

Notice. The company next argued that the employee failed to provide it with adequate notice of her need for leave, asserting the doctor’s note was insufficient and she never said or did anything beyond submitting the note. Again disagreeing, the court found that the note referenced the reason (her pregnancy) and need for leave as well as her restriction of no more than 20 hours of work per week. Further, by submitting the note one day after receiving it, the employee acted as soon as was possible and practical.

Retaliation. As to the employee’s retaliation claim, the parties disputed whether there was a causal connection between her termination and her request for a reduced working schedule. Observing that no reasonable jury could find the required causal connection lacking, the court pointed out that she provided the company with the doctor’s note on Friday, November 13, restricting her hours and indicating that the leave was pregnancy related and on the same day, the company decided to terminate her. The employer argued that while she was “getting by” with the initial restrictions (no snow removal, mopping, or vacuuming), her reduction in hours indicated she would not be able to complete “the essential functions of her job.” However, there was no evidence indicating she would have been fired based on her initial restrictions alone, said the court, noting that the company’s decision to fire her was directly connected to her request for reduced hours, which was protected under the FMLA.

Damages. Turning to the employer’s assertion that the district court erred in granting the employee’s motion to amend the judgment when it awarded her damages without a trial on the merits, the appeals court pointed out that it repeatedly requested that a jury determine damages in its motions to the lower court. Further, at appellate oral argument, counsel for the employer emphasized that “this is a highly unusual FMLA employment case in which the trial court not only entered summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff on liability matters, but then proceeded to resolve disputed fact issues regarding damages without a jury, without an evidentiary hearing, and even without oral argument.” The company also noted at oral argument that it requested “a jury trial on all issues so triable, that includes damages.”

Stating that there were fact disputes that should have prevented the district court from determining damages, the Eighth Circuit observed that a jury should have determined whether the employee mitigated damages (and to what extent) and whether the employer acted in bad faith. Finding that the company was entitled to have a jury determine these fact disputes, the court reversed the judgment as to damages and remanded for a jury trial on damages.

SOURCE: Wages v. Stuart Management Corp., (CA-8), No.14-2793, August 10, 2015.

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