- Because a surgical technician’s retaliation lawsuit alleged only "petty slights or minor annoyances," a lower court was correct to grant summary judgment for the employer, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Beckley v. St. Luke’s Episcopal-Presbyterian Hospitals, dba St Luke’s Hospital, No. 18-2643 (8th Cir. May 16, 2019)).
- Karen Beckley sued her former employer, St. Luke’s Episcopal-Presbyterian Hospitals, alleging interference with her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights, as well as retaliation. The employer had fired her, citing poor performance. But Beckley said co-workers' and supervisors' complaints about her performance focused on her protected leave; notably, one of her co-workers told her that she "needed to watch herself" over her FMLA usage, the court noted.
- A federal district court granted summary judgment for the employer and the 8th Circuit affirmed. Not only did the comments fail to give rise to an FMLA claim, but Beckley also admitted to serious errors at work: failing to follow on-call policy, mislabeling a syringe and — after a final warning — leaving operating room during a complicated surgery for at least 15 minutes.
Terminating an employee shortly after a return from protected leave often creates legal headaches for employers and some experts advise against it. After all, timing alone can establish a prima facie case of retaliation, Philip K. Miles III, a shareholder at McQuaide Blasko, previously told HR Dive.
But employers can discipline employees when they have legitimate reasons for doing so and have taken the proper steps; courts have consistently ruled that FMLA leave does not protect employees from misconduct discovered during leave, and the same goes for those who take leave intermittently. In Beckley, the employer prevailed because it was able to show strong documentation of work performance issues and that it had repeatedly communicated the issues to the employee.
In another instance, strong documentation allowed Envoy Air Inc. to prevail in a lawsuit brought by an employee fired one month after returning from FMLA leave. The worker had been selected for a random audit and was fired for abusing his employer's travel policy, and an HR representative's notes taken during the audit proved significant in justifying the employer’s actions.