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Termination Based On Audit That Started Before FMLA Leave Upheld By Sixth Circuit

Published by and on February 25, 2019

Airline employee was unable to prove that Envoy Air terminated him because he took protected FMLA leave.

On January 14, 2019, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a Michigan U.S. District Court’s summary judgment order in favor of employer Envoy Air Incorporated (“Envoy”) on wrongful termination claims made by a former employee. Envoy Air is an Affiliate of American Airlines. The former employee claimed that Envoy violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by terminating him in retaliation for using protected medical leave. The former employee also made claims under the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. See Armando Nieves v. Envoy Air, Inc., No. 18-1127 (6th Cir. Jan. 14, 2019).

Facts:

The employee served as a gate agent for Envoy Air for 19 years. His work duties included working at the ticketing counter, customer service desk, loading luggage, and directing planes on the jet way. Beginning in 2015, American Airlines conducted a travel audit of employees and affiliates’ employees to look for travel privilege abuse by employees. Per Company policy, any employee (including Envoy Air employees) who permitted an ineligible individual to use travel benefits is subject to termination. Following a random audit in 2015, the employee was found in violation of the policy because he allowed three ineligible individuals to use his travel privileges. The audit findings were recommended for further investigation.

In January 2016, the employee was hospitalized and out on FMLA leave for several weeks. Following his return to work, the travel audit investigation resumed. One of Envoy’s Senior Human Resource / Employee Relations Specialist finalized the investigation and forwarded her findings to another Envoy Senior Human Resource Specialist and to that Specialist’s supervisor. All three Human Resources employees recommended termination based on the employee’s violation of clear company policy. The decision to terminate was reviewed by Envoy’s Vice Presidents of Human Resources, Finance, and Legal Department. After conferring, Human Resources forwarded the investigation summary to the employee’s supervisor, instructing the supervisor to terminate the employee and freeze the employee’s travel privileges.

Following termination, the employee sued Envoy Air for wrongful termination on the three counts listed above. The U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Envoy Air on all three claims and the employee appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

In reviewing the employee’s FMLA claim on appeal, the Court stated that the employee failed to state a prima facie FMLA retaliation claim because he failed to show any causal connection between his FMLA leave and his termination. The Court explained that even if the Human Resources investigator made comments regarding the employee’s use of FMLA leave, in context, this evidence was not enough to show a causal connection. The Court further explained that comments made by the employee’s supervisor regarding the employee’s need to retire in light of his illness were still too ambiguous to support the FMLA retaliation claim.

The employee also argued that his travel log was given heightened scrutiny over other employees. The Court rejected this argument, stating that there were no facts in the record that supported the employee’s contention that his records were subject to increased scrutiny beyond any ordinary investigation per company policy. The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

Welter Insight

This case highlights the importance of consistent application of company policy and well-documented records of investigation that support an employer’s non-retaliatory / non-discriminatory decision to terminate employment, even if an individual just returned from FMLA leave. Employers should understand that terminating an employee during or shortly after taking FMLA or other protected leave is risky. It is advisable to consult legal counsel before making any such decisions.

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