Thursday, March 30, 2023

No FMLA Liability if the Employee Isn’t Harmed, 7th Cir. Says

An employee who claimed Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) interference wasn’t entitled to any of the law’s remedies because he wasn’t denied any of its rights, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Hickey v. Protective Life Corp., No. 20-1076 (7th Cir., Feb. 12, 2021)).

The plaintiff, who sold auto warranties and insurance products, took FMLA to leave. During his absence, the defendant merged with another company. The plaintiff’s job was changed and the employer said that while his compensation would be guaranteed for six months after his return, he would have to build up his own book of business. However, shortly after he returned to work, the plaintiff was fired for insubordination and lack of interest. He sued, claiming interference and other violations.

A district court concluded that the employee provided no evidence that he suffered harm for which the FMLA provides a monetary or equitable remedy; on appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed.

The FMLA prohibits “interference” with the protections it provides, which means employers can’t discriminate or retaliate against employees who take FMLA leave. Specifically, the FMLA makes it “unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right” provided in the federal law. The FMLA requires that an employee be restored to the same position held at the beginning of the employee’s leave or to an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.

In this instance, the court noted that to survive summary judgment, the plaintiff had to provide evidence from which a jury could conclude that he suffered damages attributable to one of these adverse actions for which the FMLA provides relief.

“Here, when [the plaintiff] returned from his FMLA leave, he initially received the same salary and benefits as he had received before his leave. Under the arrangement given him upon his return, his compensation could have diminished after six months if he had stayed in Protective’s employ for that period. However, his employment with Protective terminated approximately three weeks after his return for reasons unrelated to his having taken FMLA leave,” the court said.

Thus, although the plaintiff eventually may have suffered damages had he remained employed with Protective, he had not suffered any compensable damages under the FMLA at the time his employment was terminated.

Additionally, the FMLA does not prohibit employers from taking actions unrelated to an employee’s leave; the law does not insulate an employee from, for example, a layoff that would have happened whether or not the employee took leave, according to FMLA regulations.