Law Updates

Employer Fails to Establish Dispute of Fact in Former Employee’s Claim Under Family and Medical Leave Act

Elizabeth Neel v. Mid-Atlantic of Fairfield, LLC, Case No.: JKB-10-405, (U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, April 20, 2011) | View pdf

(April 4, 2011) Eric M. Leppo, Associate.

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In this recent Opinion from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Judge James K. Bredar granted Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court found that as a matter of law, Plaintiff Elizabeth Neel’s former employer Mid-Atlantic of Fairfield, LLC violated the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by failing to restore Ms. Neel to employment upon return from a serious injury.

Ms. Neel began working for Mid-Atlantic in May 2008. The record established that she received positive feedback from her supervisor and her performance met or exceeded company expectations. However, in March 2009, she sustained an injury to her neck, that required her to begin taking days (or partial days) off of work to receive treatment. Plaintiff took this time off via sick leave, personal time or vacation time.

Thereafter, the Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident and sustained a more severe injury to her neck. In October 2009, she applied for and was granted leave under the FMLA by Mid-Atlantic on the basis that she had a serious health condition. Ms. Neel was subsequently cleared to return to work in December. At that time, however, she was informed by Mid-Atlantic that they had found a successor to her position, and there were no alternative openings available.

Ms. Neel filed a Complaint that her termination from Mid-Atlantic was in violation of the FMLA, specifically, 29 U.S.C § 2615(a). The Court noted that the 1993 Act was designed to balance workplace demands with family needs and personal health needs. Under the Act, it is “unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of . . . any right provided under this sub-chapter.” 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2). A serious health condition is one basis for taking leave under FMLA. Mid-Atlantic argued that Ms. Neel’s neck condition did not meet the requirements of a serious health condition. However, the Court noted that Mid-Atlantic should have raised this issue when leave was requested, and moreover, it was clear that Ms. Neel presented a chronic condition in her neck qualifying as a serious medical condition under the FMLA.

The Court then noted the employer’s obligation under the FMLA to restore an employee to their previous position or an equivalent one upon return. 29 U.S.C § 2614(a). This is required unless the “key employee exemption” applies, which provides that denial of restoration is acceptable under certain conditions. Those conditions are that the employer notified the employee of its intent to deny restoration if the employer determines that substantial and grievous economic injury would occur by restoring the employee. The Court noted that Mid-Atlantic failed to provide Ms. Neel with a clear statement of intent to deny restoration which deprived her of an important right under the FMLA.

The Court concluded that Mid-Atlantic interfered with Ms. Neel’s FMLA rights by failing to provide her with the proper notice and failing to explain the basis for its determination that restoration would cause substantial and grievous economic injury. Therefore, Mid-Atlantic was not entitled to the key employee exemption.

Thereafter, the Court determined that Mid-Atlantic’s termination of Ms. Neel was clearly based on her taking FMLA leave. Deposition testimony confirmed that if Ms. Neel had not taken the FMLA leave, she would not have been terminated. The Court stated, “It is difficult to imagine a plainer statement of an employer’s reason for termination of an employee because she had taken FMLA leave.” Neel v. Mid-Atlantic at *19. As a result, the Court found that there was no genuine dispute of material fact, and that, Ms. Neel was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Her termination resulted from leave taken under FMLA, and Mid-Atlantic did not meet the requirements of the key employee exemption.