Navigating the leave law landscape can be tricky business for employers. The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently ruled that an employer failed to prove it did not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA) when it terminated an employee after she requested leave.
“Beverly” began working for Geodis Wilson USA, Inc., in May 2012. In April 2013, she requested leave under the FMLA because shoulder pain prevented her from working. Geodis’ HR department asked her to provide information from her doctors. Beverly initially failed to send all the requested information. Geodis requested more documentation and told her that if she failed to provide the information, it would terminate her for job abandonment.
Geodis also told Beverly that business needs required that her work be distributed to other employees. She finally presented all necessary paperwork, and the company granted her FMLA leave request. When her shoulder pain continued, Geodis granted her request for an additional 4 weeks of leave.
One week before Beverly was scheduled to return to work, her son was involved in a serious car accident. She called her supervisor and then e-mailed HR, explaining the situation and saying she could not return to work for a couple of weeks because her son could not be left alone. No one from Geodis responded. Several weeks later, Beverly called and e-mailed HR, stating she expected to return to work on September 9, 2013.
Geodis did not respond to Beverly’s message for nearly a month. Finally, HR asked for a medical certification for her son’s situation. The letter was silent about whether she could return to work, so she contacted HR three times to ask about her return. HR ignored her question, again asked for a medical certification for her son, and told her not to contact her branch.
HR sent another letter asking for a medical certification, and Beverly explained that she did not know what the company needed. In response, HR sent her a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) form for a doctor to fill out for FMLA leave and added “New Jersey Family Leave Act.” She partially filled out the form, but she did not complete the doctor’s section. Instead, she included three notes from her son’s doctors.
Geodis never told Beverly that her submission was not enough. Instead, on October 16, 2013, it terminated her for failing to provide enough information to substantiate her eligibility for leave.
On March 12, 2015, Beverly filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Geodis (1) interfered with her right to take leave under the NJFLA and (2) retaliated against her in violation of both the FMLA and the NJFLA. Geodis filed a motion seeking dismissal of both claims.
The company argued that its FMLA and NJFLA certification requirements and policies were outlined in its handbook and that Beverly could have accessed the information via a hard copy or its intranet site. Beverly argued that the intranet site was not available to employees on leave and that Geodis should have notified her that the doctor’s notes were insufficient and given her a chance to correct them in accordance with the law and its handbook. The court denied the company’s motion.
Under the FMLA and the NJFLA, claims are analyzed under the same standards. To prevail on an interference claim, an employee must show that she was entitled to benefits and that benefits were denied. In this case, the court determined that because of the timing of events and the limited access to leave information, there were genuine issues regarding whether Geodis timely notified Beverly of her rights.
In addition, the court determined that a jury could find that she was harmed by a lack of notice because she might have completed the DOL form had she been told it was part of the NJFLA leave application. Finally, the court noted that the FMLA required Geodis to alert her of any deficiencies in her leave application. Therefore, because there were genuine issues regarding whether Beverly was harmed by the lack of notice and her inability to cure any deficiencies, the court denied Geodis’ motion for dismissal on the interference claim.
In analyzing Beverly’s retaliation claims under the FMLA and the NJFLA, the court used a three-step burden-shifting process. First, the court determined whether she could establish a claim for unlawful retaliation, which required her to show that (1) she invoked her right to take leave, (2) she was terminated, and (3) her termination was related to her leave request.
There was no dispute that Geodis terminated her. The court found that Beverly “easily” satisfied the first factor because she requested leave for her own injury and her son’s accident. The court also found that there was evidence the company was hostile toward her leave requests and that her two long, consecutive absences could demonstrate a causal connection between her requests and her termination.
Next, the burden shifted to Geodis to show a legitimate reason for Beverly’s termination. The company’s explanation that she never provided substantiating documentation for her leave requests satisfied the “light” burden.
Finally, the burden shifted back to Beverly to point to some evidence that the employer’s articulated reason should not be believed or was not the motivating reason for her termination. The court concluded there was enough evidence regarding Geodis’ alleged failure to communicate, its alleged failure to alert Beverly of the deficiencies on the DOL form, and its alleged hostility to her leave requests to warrant the claim being decided by a jury.
This case highlights the need to stay on top of employees’ leave requests. From the outset, make sure that employees understand and have access to your policies and procedures for requesting leave. Protect your company by responding to leave requests in a timely fashion, providing all necessary information and forms, and following up with employees quickly if more information is needed.
Gregory S. Tabakman is a contributor to New Jersey Employment Law Letter.