The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision of a District Court finding that the plaintiff’s rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) were violated when her employer improperly used the leave as a motivating factor to take adverse employment actions against her.
Eunice Hunter (“Hunter”), a custodian for Valley View Local Schools (“Valley View”), was injured in a car accident in 2003. Soon after returning to work, Valley View placed Hunter on unpaid involuntary leave. Hunter alleged in her case before the court, that her use of FMLA leave was impermissibly considered in the decision to place her on involuntary leave. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Valley View, finding that they would have taken the same action regardless of Hunter’s FMLA leave. The Court of Appeals, however, did not agree with the decision of the District Court. They instead found in favor of Hunter and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The case is Eunice Hunter vs. Valley View Local Schools
Hunter had worked as a custodian for Valley View since 1996. On June 16, 2003, she was injured in a car accident which caused nerve damage in her right hand, arm, and foot, and exacerbated the arthritis in her right knee. From 2003 to 2005, Hunter took intermittent periods of leave pursuant to the FMLA while she underwent three rounds of surgery.
Hunter returned from her third round of surgery on August 18, 2005, with permanent restrictions of no lifting, pushing, or pulling more than ten pounds; and no climbing stairs or ladders. In October, 2005, during a meeting requested by the Valley View Superintendent, Hunter learned that she would be placed on involuntary, unpaid leave effective the following month. On October 3, 2005 Hunter received a letter from the Superintendent formally advising “as of October 14, 2005, you are hereby placed on unpaid medical leave not to exceed one (1) year based on your doctor’s restrictions limiting your ability to perform your job and excessive absenteeism for the past four (4) years.”
On June 8, 2006 Hunter filed a civil action in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Ohio, alleging violation of the FMLA, as well as failure to accommodate, disability discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims under Ohio law. Valley View removed this action to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
In October of 2006, Valley View extended Hunter’s involuntary leave for an additional year. Then, in February of 2007, Hunter’s doctor reviewed a list of her job responsibilities and indicated that Hunter could perform them, with the exception of climbing on ladders to change light bulbs. Hunter was allowed to return to Valley View, where she continues to work.
Following Hunter’s return to work, Valley View filed its motion for summary judgment. In opposition, Hunter presented the deposition testimony of the Superintendent. The Superintendent testified that Hunter’s use of FMLA leave was one of two reasons she placed her on involuntary leave. The District Court found that this testimony constituted direct evidence that Valley View impermissibly considered Hunter’s use of FMLA leave. Nonetheless, the court concluded that Valley View was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because it would have placed Hunter on involuntary leave in any event due to her permanent medical restrictions. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment to Valley View on Hunter’s FMLA claim, declining to exercise pendant jurisdiction over her state law claims, and remanding the remaining claims to the Court of Common Pleas.
The FMLA provides the following two theories of recovery:
a) an interference (or entitlement) theory, and
b) a retaliation (or discrimination) theory.
Hunter brought her claim before the appeals court under the latter category, since it was undisputed that Hunter was an “eligible employee” and one who suffered from a “serious health condition” under the terms and requirements of the FMLA,.
Courts have often relied on Title VII precedent to analyze FMLA discrimination claims. Recently, however, the Supreme Court reminded courts that Title VII decisions do not automatically control the construction of other employment discrimination statutes. (Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S. Ct. 2343, 2348-49 (2009)). The Gross court noted that Title VII “explicitly authorizes discrimination claims in which an improper consideration was ‘a motivating factor’ among other, permissible factors for an adverse employment decision.” Id. at 2349 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(m)). This statutory authorization formed the basis for the burden-shifting instruction followed by the Court of Appeals. By applying the Title VII precedent to the FMLA, the court determined that, like Title VII, the FMLA does authorize claims based on adverse employment actions motivated by both the employee’s use of FMLA leave and also other, permissible factors. The court concluded that the burden-shifting framework applicable to retaliation claims was established when Valley View provided direct evidence of a retaliatory motive when they interpret the FMLA through the lens provided by Gross,. Valley View’s testimony was found to undermine protests that no issue of fact remained as to whether it would have made the same decision regarding Hunter even if she had not taken any FMLA leave. The Superintendent testified that she placed Hunter on involuntary leave: because of her “permanent medical restrictions,” and because of her “excessive absenteeism,” which was based on a review of Hunter’s attendance record which included her FMLA leaves. The burden shifted to Valley View “to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision absent the impermissible motive.”
With Hunter’s records reflecting her FMLA absences, the court ruled that Hunter’s use of FMLA leave actually motivated Valley View to place her on involuntary leave. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.