Human Resources News & Insights

FMLA ruling: Is this loose standard terrible news for your compliance efforts?

Thanks to a recent court ruling, it may now be even more difficult for employers to take any adverse action against an employee who is on — or has previously taken — FMLA leave.

Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers is the lawsuit HR pros everywhere must be aware of.

Clear performance problems

The lawsuit focused on Cassandra Woods, a staffer whose performance struggles were well-documented.

In fact, her employer put down in writing that she was failed to achieve “required outcomes” in both “compliance” and “documentation.”

Due to these issues, Woods was given enhanced training, however, that didn’t improve her problems and she was eventually put on a a 90-day probation. Here’s where the FMLA came into play.

Because Woods suffers from severe anemia and other medical conditions, she took FMLA on a number of occasions. During her probation, Woods was granted FMLA leave, which the company granted.

But 12 days after she returned, her supervisor proposed firing her. A week later Woods was terminated.

She claimed the termination was retaliation for her FMLA and filed a suit against the company.

Her employer argued the move was purely performance based. It pointed to performance reviews that clearly documented her performance problems as well as the enhanced training and a 90-day probation period to support its decision.

A very loose standard

Initially, a district court ruled Woods was required to proved that her FMLA leave was the “but for” cause of her termination. In other words, she would not have been fired “but for” her FMLA leave. A jury believed Woods failed here.

But an appeals court used a very loose standard for validating FMLA claims that essentially makes it much easier for employees to push forward retaliation claims. According to the court, Woods only needed to show her FMLA was a “motivating factor” in the company’s termination decision.

Put another way, Woods only needed to show that FMLA leave was a negative factor or a part of the company’s decision to fire her. The court then send the case back to trial and a jury will determine whether the claims meet the lower standard.

All decisions under the microscope

Lesson: If this standard for retaliation claims becomes the norm, employers’ documentation of the decision-making process will be put under the microscope. So every step of the process must be recorded as if it could be used in court.

Cite: Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers

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