Question remained whether employee was prejudiced by leave denial

A hospital medical staff coordinator was allowed to continue with her claim that her employer violated the FMLA by denying one request for leave and terminating her after she returned from another instance of leave. At issue: whether she was prejudiced by the leave denial, given that she was provided a flexible schedule instead, which allowed her to attend medical appointments with her spouse and care for him as needed. However, her federal and state law disability claims were dismissed

The employee took eight weeks of FMLA leave in August 2015 to undergo a major surgical procedure. In November 2015, she requested additional FMLA leave to care for her husband, who had been diagnosed with cancer and renal failure. Her request was initially denied because her supervisor mistakenly believed that the employee could not take FMLA leave for two different qualifying events in the same year. However, the employee was allowed to work a flexible schedule.

In February 2016, the employee again requested FMLA leave to care for her husband as he underwent a stem cell transplant. This request was granted, but when she returned, she was terminated, allegedly for paperwork mistakes and poor performance. She filed suit under the FMLA, the ADA, and the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (LEDL).

FMLA interference.

The employee contended her employer interfered with her FMLA rights by denying her request to take leave to care for her husband in 2015. Her employer argued that the employee was unable to show prejudice and, despite having her request denied, she was allowed to work a flexible schedule so that she could attend medical appointments with her husband. The employee admitted that her husband never missed a medical appointment and that she did not have to hire a caretaker to care for her husband despite the denial of FMLA leave. Nonetheless, she argued that she suffered prejudice because, despite allowing her a flexible schedule, her supervisor piled work on her right before she intended to leave to bring her husband to the doctor, and then “wrote her up” for passing her work off to a coworker. This disciplinary action was taken into consideration as part of her alleged “history of work performance issues” when she was ultimately terminated. Consequently, the employee claimed that had she been on FMLA leave as she had requested, she would not have been disciplined.

The court found a material issue of fact existed as to whether the employee suffered prejudice when her leave request was denied and specifically whether the “write-ups” that allegedly occurred as a result of her more flexible schedule led to her discharge. Therefore, the employer’s motion for summary judgment on this claim was denied.

FMLA retaliation.

Summary judgment was also denied on the employee’s claim that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The employer argued that the employee couldn’t show that the proffered reason for discharge-poor performance-was pretext, since problems with her job performance were identified before she took her first FMLA leave. Moreover, it contended, it made the termination decision while the employee was on leave because it found numerous errors during a review of her work; her supervisor only waited until her return to work so that she wouldn’t lose benefits.

In response, the employee claimed that the employer undertook the review of her work in order to find a reason to terminate her, because the supervisor felt the employee’s leave had “put her ‘in a bind.'” As evidence of pretext, she cited her supervisor’s derogatory remarks about her being on leave, as well as the supervisor’s failure to follow policy and seek consent of the CEO before a termination. The employee also noted that prior to her FMLA leave, she received high performance evaluations. The court found she more than carried her burden to show a material issue of fact, and the employer’s “army of arguments” disputing her assertions of pretext simply created more issues of fact.

Disability claims.

The court granted summary judgment to the employer on the employee’s ADA associational disability discrimination claim, however, because she failed to establish a prima facie case. There was no evidence the supervisor had any discriminatory animus toward the employee’s husband because of his disability or that she made any negative comments regarding his illness. The facts did not create a reasonable inference that the husband’s disability was a factor in the employee’s discharge, especially in light of her arguments that her requests for FMLA leave were the reason for her discharge.

Also, the employee’s disability discrimination claims were dismissed because she could not show she had a physical impairment which limited a major life activity under the terms of the ADA at the time of the adverse employment action.

Disability retaliation.

The employee claimed the employer violated the ADA and LEDL when it refused her request to work overtime in anticipation of her request for additional leave to care for her husband. The employee first alleged that her request for FMLA leave was a request for accommodation under the ADA and that the denial of the opportunity to work overtime was in retaliation for that protected activity. Noting the Fifth Circuit has unequivocally held that “a request for FMLA leave is not a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA,” the court concluded the employee could not show she engaged in a protected activity, and dismissed her ADA retaliation claim on this ground.

The employee also alleged that the employer unlawfully retaliated when it cancelled her husband’s COBRA insurance after she filed an EEOC charge. But even assuming she could establish a prima facie case on this claim, there was no evidence the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for canceling COBRA was pretext. The employee mistakenly sent her premium payments directly to the hospital instead of to its COBRA administrator. The mistake caused a delay in payment that jeopardized COBRA coverage. Her supervisor addressed the situation immediately and restored coverage on the day that she learned of the issue. The employee failed to show this explanation was a pretext. Accordingly, the LEDL and ADA discrimination claims were dismissed.

SOURCE: Hartman v. LaFourche Parish Hospital (E.D. La.), No. 16-15467, August 7, 2017.
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