Top Ten Developments in Employment Law for HR Professionals in Virginia — #5
Published by Eric A. Welter on January 14, 2010
The top ten developments in employment law for HR professionals in Virginia for 2009 continues, in no particular order. Number 5: No “Magic Words” for invoking FMLA leave. More after the break. In Dotson v. Pfizer, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s finding that the employer had interfered with an employee’s right to leave under […]
The top ten developments in employment law for HR professionals in Virginia for 2009 continues, in no particular order. Number 5: No “Magic Words” for invoking FMLA leave. More after the break.
In Dotson v. Pfizer, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s finding that the employer had interfered with an employee’s right to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and had engaged in retaliation for the employee’s exercise of those rights. In this case, Dotson and his wife adopted a child from Russia, which required two trips to the country during 2003. Dotson had spoken with a Human Resources representative about taking leave and the benefits available to him during that time. Dotson also took some company samples of Zithromax to give to the orphanage as a gift. Following his first trip to Russia, Dotson’s supervisors gave him a less than favorable performance review, and expressed displeasure in Dotson’s taking of the samples. Just a few weeks after Dotson returned from his second trip, he was discharged. The trial court awarded Dotson $1,876 on the interference claim and $331,429.25 on the retaliation claim. Dotson was also awarded $331,305.25 in liquidated damages, $375,000 in attorneys’ fees, and $14,264.88 in costs.
On appeal, the parties did not dispute that Dotson had taken intermittent leave in preparation for an adoption. Pfizer argued, however, that it had never approved intermittent FMLA leave. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, finding no evidence that Pfizer had prohibited Dotson from taking intermittent leave. In fact, the court found that Pfizer had agreed to the intermittent pre-adoption leave because Dotson had contacted human resources about the leave and kept his supervisor informed of his plans, yet no one had ever suggested to him that he could not take the trips. The court also rejected Pfizer’s argument that since Dotson had not properly exercised his FMLA rights, those rights could not have been interfered with. The court stated that Dotson had given “clear and advance notice” of his need to take leave, and that Pfizer had the responsibility to determine whether the requested leave was FMLA leave.
Finally, the court rejected Pfizer’s argument that Dotson had failed to prove pretext on the part of Pfizer. Pfizer’s stated reason for firing Dotson was that giving the Zithromax samples to the orphanage could be regarded as a quid pro quo. The court found that there was ample evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that Pfizer’s stated reason was pretext for discrimination. In support its finding, the court pointed to the fact that other Pfizer employees who were aware of Dotson’s intent to donate the samples, including his direct supervisor and a member of the executive team in charge of his termination, did nothing to stop him. The court also emphasized the fact that Dotson was the only one out of the five employees who were involved in the alleged mishandling of medication to have been terminated.
As to the question of damages, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of front pay as “too speculative.” With regard to the issue of pre-judgment interest, however, the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s denial of the award, stating that pre-judgment interest under the FMLA is “mandatory rather than discretionary.” On the issue of attorneys’ fees, the court held that the award of $375,000 was reasonable. Nevertheless, the court vacated the fee award for recalculation based on Dotson’s right to pre-judgment interest, which would result in a fuller recovery on his claims.Topics: FMLA, HR