Not only are employees entitled to take medical leave under the Family
and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but the law also prohibits employers from
interfering with their opportunity to take such leave. A Federal Court
in North Carolina
ruled last week that an employee who was discouraged from applying for intermittent
FMLA leave to care for her sick son but instead encouraged to work a reduced
schedule remotely, who was later discharged because she couldn't adequately
perform her duties, had a good FMLA interference claim.
Mandi Marie Alexander was employed by Carolina Fire Control as a project
manager from October 2007 until January 2013. In the summer of 2012 she
informed the company that her minor son was diagnosed with cancer and
that she needed to take time off from work on an intermittent basis to
care for him.
An HR representative subsequently mailed her the FMLA paperwork that she
needed to present to her son's physician. However, before she applied
for leave, the company owners called her into a meeting and discouraged
her from completing her FMLA paperwork. The owners allegedly told her
that she did not need to request FMLA leave because they would allow her
to work a reduced schedule and to work from a remote location by laptop
so that she could provide care for her son without using FMLA. Based on
these representations, Alexander did not complete the FMLA paperwork.
Over the next several months, Alexander worked between 30 to 40 hours per
week while caring for her son, sometimes working at a remote location.
As a result of the reduced hours and working offsite, she was not always
available for office activities and did not always immediately respond
to supervisors' emails and phone calls. About six months after her
initial leave request, she was discharged for insubordination. She claimed
she had never previously been informed that her that her job was in jeopardy,
nor had she ever been disciplined. Alexander sued, asserting claims under
the FMLA, Title VII and state law.
The company claimed that Alexander's claim should be dismissed because
she did not take FMLA leave, nor was a FMLA leave requested and denied.
The Court, however, rejected the company's claim, finding that Alexander
sufficiently alleged that the company interfered with her FMLA rights
because its actions discouraged her from applying for any intermittent
FMLA leave. Alexander did not complete the FMLA paperwork because the
owners told her not apply for it since they would allow her to work a
reduced hours from a remote location without having to resort to using
The Court found that Alexander stated a plausible FMLA interference claim
because if she had not been both discouraged from taking intermittent
FMLA leave and encouraged to work a reduced schedule, she would have not
been terminated for unsatisfactory job performance since the periods for
which she was unavailable would have been covered as FMLA leave.
The takeaway: If you request FMLA leave from your employer, and your employer
discourages you from doing so by stating that alternate work accommodations
are possible, be sure that you will be able to perform your responsibilities
adequately under the modified arrangements. If you can't, and then
are terminated, you may still be able to bring a successful FMLA claim
alleging interference. But if you want to avoid litigation, insist on
taking the FMLA leave, especially if you think your employer's modifications
won't work out for you.