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Employer Sued for Interfering with Employee's FMLA Rights

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 FMLA leave.

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.

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