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First Circuit Holds Decisionmaker Must Have Actual Knowledge of Protected FMLA Leave in Order to Be Held Liable for FMLA Retaliation

Published by and on April 20, 2017

Employers should strive to implement measures that inform decisionmakers and supervisors when an employee is taking protected leave in order to avoid the appearance of retaliation.

The First Circuit in Chase v. USPS found that the United States Postal Service (USPS) did not retaliate against its former employee, Robert Chase, in violation of the FMLA, when it terminated him because his supervisor, Michael King, had no knowledge that Chase had taken FMLA leave. Chase had suffered an on-the-job injury and was granted leave under the FMLA. Once he exhausted his FMLA leave, he remained out on medical leave. Chase was also receiving workers’ compensation for his injury during his leave. Chase put forth evidence that prior to his leave, King accused Chase of faking his injuries and mocked him on several occasions. While out on leave, King pressured Chase to return and threated him with a workers’ compensation fraud investigation if he did not return to work.

Also, while on leave, Chase was arrested on drug-related charges. A few months after his arrest, King spoke with Chase during a pre-disciplinary interview about how his criminal charges would affect his job. King ultimately issued a Notice of Removal terminating Chase’s employment, which was upheld after an arbitrator ruled USPS had presented evidence that he had possessed an illegal drug in violation of USPS policy. Chase then sued for FMLA retaliation. During a bench trial, USPS presented evidence that King was unaware that Chase had taken FMLA leave. The trial court ruled that because King did not have the requisite knowledge that Chase’s leave was protected under the FMLA, Chase’s FMLA retaliation claim failed.

On appeal, the First Circuit upheld the verdict for USPS, noting that for an employer to be liable for retaliation under the FMLA, the employee has to show a causal connection between the FMLA leave and the employer’s adverse action—the employer must have taken the adverse action “because of a prohibited reason.” Therefore, an employer cannot be liable for retaliation unless the decisionmaker knew that the employee had invoked his or her rights under the FMLA. Among other evidence, King testified that he believed Chase was out on workers’ compensation medical leave, not FMLA leave.

The First Circuit held that the evidence established King had a reasonable and well-founded belief that Chase had not taken FMLA leave. The Court also held that any “corporate” knowledge that Chase took leave under the FMLA could not be imputed to King.

Welter Insight

Despite language favorable language from the First Circuit, employers should strive to implement measures that inform decisionmakers and supervisors when an employee is taking protected leave in order to avoid the appearance of retaliation. The First Circuit emphasized several times throughout its opinion that based on the specific facts of this case, the decisionmaker’s belief that the employee had not taken FMLA leave was “reasonable” and “well-founded.” Thus, employers should not rely on this case as establishing a “willful ignorance” defense for employers where decisionmakers deliberately avoid finding out whether an employee is out on FMLA leave to avoid liability for retaliation.

Employers should also remember that retaliating against an employee for taking workers’ compensation leave is illegal in most jurisdictions as well. Proper leave management and good HR practices are always your best defense.

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