- The Family and Medical Leave Act does not protect employees on leave from termination unrelated to their leave, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held April 27 in Byrd v. Clay County, Texas.
- An employee who would have been fired had she not taken FMLA leave wasn’t entitled to be reinstated when her leave ended, it concluded in a lawsuit involving a county sheriff’s office in Texas. After a new Clay County sheriff was elected in 2020, he decided to replace several supervisors, including the plaintiff, according to the court. He emailed the supervisors individually, notifying them their employment would end in two weeks, the day he took office. The plaintiff — who later alleged she didn’t see that email — contacted the county about taking FMLA leave. A few days before she was scheduled to be terminated, a county representative granted her request; when her leave ended a month later, she was not reinstated and sued, alleging the county interfered with her FMLA rights.
- A district court granted summary judgment for the county and on appeal, the 5th Circuit upheld that ruling. The record was “indisputably clear” that if the plaintiff had not taken FMLA leave, she would have been fired weeks earlier, the appeals court said. When a plaintiff would have been lawfully terminated had they not taken leave, they can’t prove the employer interfered with their FMLA rights by not reinstating them, the panel explained. In other words, “employees can’t immunize themselves from legitimate termination by taking FMLA leave,” the panel said. It didn’t matter whether the plaintiff knew before she applied for leave that her job was ending, the 5th Circuit added; “it matters only that her job was in fact ending,” the court said.
The FMLA gives employees the right to return to the same or an equivalent job when their leave ends, according to U.S. Department of Labor guidance.
However, courts have found that the right has limits: It doesn’t extend to employees terminated for legitimate reasons unrelated to the leave. For example, in a March 2022 ruling, Anderson v. Nations Lending Corp., the 7th Circuit held that a mortgage lender didn’t interfere with an employee’s FMLA rights when it terminated her just days after she returned from leave. The employee had a history of performance issues and while she was on leave, the company discovered more errors. Following an investigation, the employee was terminated.
The 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, ruled that, “on this record, a rational jury could not conclude that Anderson was terminated because she had taken FMLA leave.”
In 2020, the 5th Circuit came to a similar conclusion in Amedee v. Shell Chemical Co., a case it cited in Byrd. In Amedee, it held that Shell Chemical did not violate the FMLA when it terminated an employee on leave for repeated attendance violations that occurred right before the leave. “Because Shell produced evidence that Amedee would have been lawfully terminated had she not taken leave, she had no right to return to work,” the court said. The 5th Circuit covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.