No Plausible FMLA Claims By Employee Fired After Exhausting 12-Weeks Of Leave, Despite Employer’s Promise To Combine Leaves

A county employee who asserted that her employer promised to combine her private and FMLA leave to allow her a longer absence, but discharged her shortly after she completed 12 weeks of leave, failed to state plausible FMLA claims since she was granted all of the FMLA leave to which she was entitled. Summary judgment also was properly granted against her on her claims that the employer breached its duties under the collective bargaining agreement and its promise to combine her leaves since she failed to exhaust the CBA’s administrative remedies, the Eleventh Circuit ruled in an unpublished decision affirming dismissal of her claims. The case is Dixon v Public Health Trust of Dade County dba Jackson Memorial Hospital (No. 13-13054).

Extended leave. The employee worked at a hospital run by a county’s public health trust. In August 2011, she asked for a temporary leave of absence so she could care for her seriously ill mother. Her request was granted and she began her leave on September 25. The HR agency hired by the hospital told her that it would work out the leave to combine private and FMLA leave so that the leave would be valid into the year 2012. The public health trust also sent her a letter approving her for “qualified” leave from September 25, 2011, to March 24, 2012.

On November 1, the employee received a letter from the hospital advising her to return to work on November 23. She spoke with a representative at the hospital’s HR agency, who assured her that her return date would be moved to January 3. However, on December 20, a member of the hospital’s integrated leave management office informed her that she had exhausted her available leave and was required to return by December 22. When she failed to do so, she was discharged.

The employee’s discharge letter noted that she failed to return to work on December 19 (not December 22) and stated that based on the hospital’s personnel policy, she was deemed to have resigned by failing to appear for three days. Although she received the letter when she returned home on December 30, she did not contact anyone about her discharge until her attorney sent a letter to the hospital on March 14, 2012, asserting violations of the FMLA and CBA.

Lower court proceedings. The employee brought the instant action asserting that her employer violated the FMLA by firing her before she completed her FMLA leave and failing to restore her to her previous position after her leave ended. She also brought two claims under the CBA alleging that she was denied her leave of absence guaranteed by the contract and fired her in violation of the “for cause” requirement. The district court dismissed her FMLA claims with prejudice, ruling that since she had received all of the FMLA leave to which she was entitled by December 18, the decision to discharge her on December 22 did not violate the statute.

It also dismissed her CBA claims without prejudice, finding that she failed to allege that she had followed the grievance and arbitration procedures mandated by the CBA. She amended her CBA claims and added a new claim for breach of contract. The district court subsequently dismissed those claims on summary judgment, concluding that she had not filed a timely grievance or submitted her claims for arbitration, as required by the CBA.

FMLA leave exhausted. The employee failed to state plausible claims under the FMLA since the record revealed that she was terminated after she had already received the 12 weeks of leave to which she was entitled under the FMLA. Since it was undisputed that her leave began on September 25, she received the 12 weeks of leave guaranteed by the FMLA by December 18. Thus, because she was fired three days later, none of her FMLA claims were viable.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected her contention that the district court failed to account for the employer’s promise to combine private and FMLA leave so that the leave would be valid into 2012. Rather, the employer had the statutory right to count her leave against her 12-week FMLA guarantee and was not obligated to notify her in advance that it would exercise that right. How the public health trust initially characterized her leave was irrelevant, the court noted.

CBA and contractual claims fail. Since the CBA required the employee to exhaust her administrative remedies under it and she did not, summary judgment was properly granted against her on her claims that she was denied leave that she had been guaranteed under the CBA, that she was fired in violation of its “for cause” requirement, and that the employer breached its agreement to combine leaves. Notably, the CBA set forth a mandatory grievance procedure which stated that a grievance would be void if the employee did not initiate the grievance procedure within ten workdays of the decision on which the grievance was based. Thus, at issue was whether the employee’s three claims fell under the definition of “grievance.”

Pursuant to the CBA, a claim was a “grievance” if it was a disagreement that related to or affected specific provisions of the CBA. Since all three of the employee’s non-FMLA claims met that definition, they necessarily concerned the interpretation or application of a specific provision of the CBA. Notably, her breach of contract claim also related to a specific CBA provision since it alleged that she was promised an unpaid leave from September 2011 to March 2012, and the CBA defined the circumstances in which division directors and vice presidents were authorized to “grant a leave of absence” without pay.

The court squarely rejected the employee’s assertion that her claims were not “grievances” since the December 22 termination letter invoked the hospital’s personnel policy instead of a CBA provision. According to her, the CBA’s three-step procedure did not apply unless the employer invoked a specific CBA provision when it fired an employee. Her argument misunderstood the CBA’s definition of “grievance,” which focused on the “dispute” and not on the action by the employer that led to the disagreement.

All three of her non-FMLA claims concerned specific provisions of the CBA and thus, because they were “grievances,” were void under the CBA since she did not follow its three-step grievance procedure. Indeed, although she learned of her termination by December 30, she took no take that could be construed as a step in the grievance procedure until over two months later, when her attorney sent a letter to the public health trust. Thus, her failure to initiate the CBA’s grievance procedure within the ten-workday window rendered her claims void.

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