- The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a ruling from a lower court that concluded an aerospace company did not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act when it fired a worker during his leave (Hester v. Bell-Textron, Inc., No. 20-11140 (5th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021)).
- Bell-Textron fired a worker with more than 20 years' tenure after it issued him a poor performance review — his first — and a final warning. But between the employee's final warning and his termination, at the suggestion of the human resources department, he applied for short-term disability and FMLA leave. He was granted both based on his epilepsy and glaucoma.
- The company terminated him in December 2018, two months into his leave, citing his poor performance review. The worker sued, alleging his employer discriminated against him by terminating him during his leave and interfered with his right to be reinstated to his position at the end of his leave. The district court dismissed the case, ruling that the worker failed to state a claim under the FMLA.
In reversing and remanding the lower court's decision, the 9th Circuit argued that the employee successfully showed a link between his termination and his request for leave.
The employee easily demonstrated the temporal proximity existing between his termination and his FMLA leave — Bell-Textron fired him during his leave, the appellate court said. This timeline indicates the employer's decision was not "completely unrelated" to his application of his FMLA rights.
The employee was also successful in properly claiming his termination was discriminatory. While the lower court said that the employee alleged his termination was motivated by elements that were unrelated to leave, the appellate court found that the employee wasn't required to claim that his protected FMLA activity was the sole cause of his termination.
The appellate court also found that the lower court improperly ruled that the worker's reinstatement rights claim failed. To make such a claim, the worker needed "to allege that Bell-Textron denied him a benefit to which he was entitled under the FMLA," the court said. "He did exactly that by alleging that Bell-Textron interfered with his right to reinstatement by failing to restore him to his position upon the termination of his FMLA leave."
The employer argued that the employee couldn't take that position because he cited legitimate justifications for his termination — he would have been fired had he not taken leave, it said. The 5th Circuit disagreed, leaning on the timing element. The worker alleged that Bell-Textron fired him two months after his leave began, with several weeks remaining.
What's more, the employer appeared to attempt to preserve his employment: "As a pleading matter, the allegation that Bell-Textron directed [the plaintiff] to an employee assistance program and guided him through the FMLA application process—rather than simply firing him outright on the basis of poor workplace performance—indicates that [the plaintiff's] right to restored employment was still intact when he secured FMLA leave."