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4th Circuit Reaffirms That Decision Makers Must Be Aware Of Protected Activity To Support Retaliation Claim

Published by on March 24, 2009

In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed its position that in order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show that the persons responsible for the adverse employment action were aware that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity (here, taking FMLA leave).  The court […]

In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed its position that in order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show that the persons responsible for the adverse employment action were aware that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity (here, taking FMLA leave).  The court had applied this standard in other contexts before.  The opinion is here.  More after the break.

Bridget Wright, a former employee of Southwest Airlines (“Southwest”), alleged that she had been retaliated against for requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  The district court granted summary judgment for Southwest, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

On appeal, Wright argued that the district court erred in finding that her supervisors were unaware of her request for FMLA leave at the time they decided to terminate her.  The court stated that to establish a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must prove that:  1) she engaged in a protected activity; 2) an adverse employment action was taken against her; and 3) a causal link exists between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  The burden then shifts to the employer to advance a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment action.  Upon this showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s reasons were mere pretext.

The Fourth Circuit acknowledged that Wright had engaged in a protected activity and that an adverse employment action had been taken against her.  The court found, however, that Wright had not established a causal connection between the protected activity and the employment action.  The court stated that to prove a causal link under the third element for retaliation, a plaintiff must show that the employer had knowledge of the protected activity.  The court found that because Wright had failed to prove that the supervisors responsible for her termination were aware of her protected activity, she had failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.

Contributed by Claudia L. Guzman

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