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Are Employees Protected From Retaliation When They Request FMLA Leave?

FMLA family medical leave act ,FMLA

For the past two decades, our Citrus County, Florida employment lawyers have fought for the rights of Florida employees who have been retaliated against for exercising their employee rights. Having represented retaliation victims for more than twenty years, our Inverness, Florida employment attorneys know that employers often retaliate against employees who invoke their rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In most cases, employees are retaliated against for taking FMLA leave. In this article, our Citrus County, Florida employment lawyers explain how the recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Sweeting v. Hill, Case No. 19-2200 (N.D. Ga. May 20, 2021) demonstrates that the FMLA not only protects employees from retaliation when they take FMLA leave, but that the FMLA also protects employees from retaliation when they request FMLA leave.

Employee FMLA Rights

Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to a total of twelve workweeks of leave during any twelve-month period because of a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of the employee’s job. In order to protect and preserve employee rights under the FMLA, the FMLA contains an anti-retaliation provision. Under the FMLA, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for exercising or attempting to exercise their FMLA rights. “FMLA retaliation claims,” as the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals observed in Boileau v. Capital Bank Financial Corp., 646 Fed.Appx. (6th Cir. 2016), “impose liability on employers that act against employees specifically because those employees invoked their FMLA rights.”

Employee Claims Unlawful Retaliation

In Sweeting, a worker named Sweeting brought a retaliation claim against her former employer, the Sheriff of Clayton County, Georgia (SCC), pursuant to the FMLA. Sweeting maintains that the SCC violated the FMLA by terminating her employment because she exercised her FMLA rights by requesting FMLA leave.

In March 2011, Sweeting began working for the SCC as a correctional officer. Since 2012, Sweeting has received medical treatment for migraine headaches. In August 2017, Sweeting suffered a work-related injury. In January 2018, Sweeting’s workers’ compensation doctor released her to full duty without restrictions. Sweeting then took leave under the FMLA from January 2, 2018 through April 17, 2018.

In December 2018, Sweeting submitted a note from her doctor requesting that her work schedule be modified because of her migraine headaches. In response, the SCC sought a fitness-for-duty certification from Sweeting’s doctor confirming that Sweeting was able to perform the essential functions of her job despite her migraine headaches. On January 3, 2019, Sweeting requested FMLA leave. Sweeting was informed by human resources personnel that she had exhausted her most recent available FMLA leave, but she could apply for FMLA leave at the beginning of her next FMLA year commencing on January 23, 2019.

On January 7, 2019, Sweeting’s doctor submitted Sweeting’s fitness-for-duty certification to the SCC. Sweeting’s doctor indicated that she was not fit for duty, could not perform the essential functions of her job, and it was “uncertain” when Sweeting’s condition would end. A few days later, in January 2019, the SCC terminated Sweeting’s employment because she “could not perform the essential functions of her position.”

Evidence Of Unlawful Retaliation

The SCC filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Sweeting’s FMLA retaliation claim. At the outset of its opinion denying the SCC’s motion for dismissal, the trial court noted that the FMLA prohibited the SCC from retaliating against Sweeting because of her request for FMLA leave. The trial court also pointed out that the FMLA protected Sweeting from retaliation even though she had exhausted her FMLA leave when she requested FMLA leave because she “would have been eligible for additional FMLA leave less than three weeks after her request.” Under well-established law, the trial court observed, “a pre-eligible employee has a cause of action if an employer terminates her in order to avoid having to accommodate that employee with rightful FMLA leave rights once the employee becomes eligible.”

Having determined that Sweeting was protected from retaliation by the FMLA, the trial court explained that the “question becomes whether a reasonable jury could find that [the SCC] terminated [Sweeting] to avoid having to provide her with FMLA leave starting on January 23, 2019.” In concluding that “a jury could” find that Sweeting was retaliated against in violation of the FMLA, the trial court focused on the closing time between Sweeting’s request for FMLA leave and her termination. The close timing, the trial court reasoned, established a causal connection between the two events. In further support of its conclusion, the trial court observed that the SCC’s witnesses admitted that Sweeting’s prior FMLA leave was “one of the contributing factors” leading to her termination. Under the FMLA, the trial court explained, “employers cannot use the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment decisions.”

Free Consultation For Retaliation Victims

One of the most important decisions that retaliation victims must make is deciding which employment lawyers to consult with regarding their legal rights. At our employment law firm, an experienced employment attorney will speak with you personally and you will receive the individualized attention your case deserves. We offer free confidential case evaluations and you will never have to pay to speak with our employment lawyers regarding your workplace issues.

Citrus County, FL Employment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Central Florida, our Citrus County, Florida employment attorneys have fought for the rights of retaliation victims for more than twenty years. If you have been retaliated against for exercising your employee rights or you have questions about your protection from retaliation under federal employment law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Inverness, Florida employment lawyers. Our employee rights law firm takes employment law cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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