Wednesday, January 6, 2016

8th Circuit Holds Employee Failed to Show Monetary Loss, Upholds SMJ in FMLA Suit

The Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") entitles eligible employees to twelve (12) workweeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period under certain enumerated circumstances.  These circumstances include the birth or adoption of a child, the illness of an immediate family member, or the development of "a serious health condition that makes the employment unable to perform the functions of [her] position."  With certain exceptions, an employee is entitled to be restored to the same or equivalent position as she held before the period of leave with equivalent terms and conditions of employment.  If an employee exhausts FMLA leave and is "unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition," the employer may terminate her employment.

The FMLA also prohibits certain acts and permits employees to enforce those prohibits through a private right of action (i.e., filing suit in federal district court).  For instance, an employer may not "interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided under" the FMLA.  FMLA interference includes "not only refusing to authorize FMLA leave, but discouraging an employee from using such leave."  Indeed, much litigation is spent over whether an employer's action amount to the level of discouragement so as to give rise to an FMLA interference claim.  An employer who violates the FMLA can be held liable for "actual monetary losses sustained by the employee," plus interest, costs, and attorney's fees.  Other type of damages, such as damages for emotional distress, are not available.

In Hasenwinkel v Mosaic, 8thCir, December 29, 2015, the plaintiff, Bonnie Hasenwinkel, sued her former employer, Mosaic, for allegedly interfering with her rights under the FMLA and for allegedly terminating her employment in violation of public policy.  Hasenwinkel obtained FMLA leave on seven (7) occasions.  Mosaic never rejected an explicit request for leave, but Hasenwinkel contends that on one occasion the company forced her to return from FMLA leave and then punished her for taking it.  Hasenwinkel further alleged that she believes Mosaic gave her a negative informal evaluation and one unsatisfactory rating in retaliation for using FMLA leave and with a design to make her quit.  Hasenwinkel also received three (3) formal corrective actions that she claims were retaliation for taking FMLA leave.  Hasenwinkel received other written warnings, but admitted to those events but contended those punishments were inappropriate and unfair.  Hasenwinkel then alleged she felt treated differently than other nurses and experienced personal slights.

Hasenwinkel had neck surgery in November 2011 and never return to work for Mosaic.  Hasenwinkel exhausted her FMLA benefits when she was unable to return to work on January 8, 2012.  Fortuitously for Hasenwinkel, Mosaic changed its method for calculating FMLA accural and she was granted an additional 12 weeks of FMLA leave.  Hasenwinkel could not recover during this second period of FMLA leave, and she again exhausted her FMLA leave on April 2, 2012.  Mosaic gave Hasenwinkel an additional 90-day medical leave of absence, but she was still unable to work after 90 days.  Thus, Mosaic terminated her employment on July 2, 2012.

Hasenwinkel sued Mosaic under the FMLA and Iowa common law, claiming that Mosaic interfered with her FMLA rights by denying her benefits to which she was entitled and discriminating against her for taking FMLA leave.  The district court granted summary judgment for Mosaic, concluding that Hasenwinkel received all of the benefits to which she was entitled under the FMLA, that the alleged discrimination did not result in an adverse employment action, and that the FMLA 'preempted[ed]" her state-law claim.  The 8th Circuit agreed.

To have succeeded on an FMLA interference claim, Hasenwinkel would have had to show that she was eligible for FMLA leave, that Mosaic was on notice of her need for FMLA leave, and that the company denied her benefits to which she was entitled to under the FMLA.  Only the latter two requirements were disputed in this case.  The 8th Circuit found that summary judgment was proper because Hasenwinkel exhausted her FMLA benefits--in fact, she received three times the amount of leave required by law.

With respect to Hasenwinkel's claim that Mosaic interfered with her FMLA rights by discriminating against her because she took FMLA leave.  Because Hasenwinkel had no direct evidence of this treatment, she had to proceed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme and had to show that she engaged in activity protected under the Act, that she suffered a materially adverse employment action, and that a causal connection existed between the employee's actions and the adverse employment action.  As stated above, Hasenwinkel based this claim on 3 items:  1) her termination, 2) her one-month suspension for failure to report mold in a group home, and 3) generally unpleasant treatment by her supervisors.

The 8th Circuit found none of these three things amounted to interference as her termination was after taking 3x FMLA leave required under law and still not being able to work.  With respect to the one-month suspension, the court noted that, "a plaintiff proceeding under the FMLA must show actual monetary loss to recover," unlike such claims under Title VII where non-pecuniary damages may be recovered.  The FMLA "provides no relief unless the employee has been prejudiced by the violation."  The court held that Hasenwinkel had not presnted evidence of any tangible loss actually incurred and directly caused by her suspension.  The only thing Hasenwinkel presented toward this end was a "missing paycheck," that was later made whole when Mosaic furnished backpay.

The court finally dismissed Hasenwinkel's claim to being treated generally unpleasant by stating this did not rise to the level of a materially adverse employment action and the FMLA does not impose a "general civility code for the American workplace."

Summary judgment affirmed.

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