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Appeals court reinstates FMLA claim of employee fired nine days after her return from FMLA leave

Last month, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a reasonable jury could determine that the defendant-employer violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it fired the plaintiff-employee after she returned from medical leave related to a knee replacement surgery.  The FMLA, among other things, requires employers to permit eligible employees to take medical leave, sometimes called “FMLA leave,” when they need it for serious health conditions; and the law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who take FMLA leave.

The plaintiff-employee in this case, Jeanne Lee Wallner, claimed that the defendant-employer, a financial brokerage firm called Hilliard Lyons Asset Management, fired her because she had taken FMLA leave.  Hilliard Lyons fired Wallner, a 27 year employee of the firm, a mere nine days after she returned from FMLA leave.

The Sixth Circuit was called upon to rule in this case because a trial judge denied Wallner the opportunity to present her case to a jury.  The trial judge thought that no reasonable jury could find in Wallner’s favor and, for that reason, dismissed her case.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the trial judge.  The Sixth Circuit concluded that Wallner presented circumstantial evidence that her FMLA leave served as one of multiple reasons for her termination and, as such, a reasonable jury could find in her favor.

One of the reasons why the Sixth Circuit found in Wallner’s favor was that she was fired very shortly after she returned to work from FMLA leave.  The court reasoned that when an employer fires an employee very shortly after the employee returns from FMLA leave, it is reasonable to infer that the employee’s use of FMLA leave contributed to the employer’s decision to fire her.

The Sixth Circuit also ruled in favor of Wallner, in part, because of the notes of the manager who decided to fire her.  Those notes cited various problems with Wallner missing work and how her abesenteeism created a hardship on the firm.  These notes referenced the medical leave that Wallner needed for her knee surgery; but, instead of explicitly saying that her medical leave was a reason for the termination, the manager’s notes said that Wallner’s failure to communicate with the firm about her return-to-work date motivated his decision.  The court thought this reference to Wallner’s medical leave was circumstantial evidence that the manager fired Wallner because of her FMLA leave since Wallner had, in fact, informed the firm of her return-to-work date in accordance with all of the firm’s rules.