Can Employers Use A Worker’s FMLA Leave As A Negative Factor When Making Employment Decisions?
Through their decades of experience representing employees, our employment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida know that many employers punish employees who take leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The most common way employers punish employees is by using an employee’s FMLA leave as a negative factor when making employment decisions. In some cases, an employer will refer to an employee’s use of FMLA leave or the employee’s FMLA-protected absence from work as a basis for an employment decision. For example, the employer’s proffered reason for an employment decision is that an employee missed too much time from work, an employee’s absence from work was unfair to other employees, or that an employee’s absence from work adversely affected the employer’s business. In this article, our employment attorneys in Citrus County, Florida explain how the decision in Zentz v. Dentive-Family First Dental, LLC,Case No. 23-cv-5071 (E.D. Wash. July 27, 2023) demonstrates that employers are prohibited from considering an employee’s use of FMLA leave when making employment decisions.
Employee FMLA Rights
The FMLA provides two substantive rights to eligible employees. The first is the right to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a newborn child, to care for a child or parent with a serious health condition, or to care for the employee’s own serious health condition. The second is the right to be restored to the same position, or a position with equivalent pay, benefits, and terms of employment, upon returning from such leave. In Sanders v. City of Newport, 657 F.3d 772 (9th Cir. 2011), the court described the right to restoration as the “linchpin” of the FMLA because it provides the expectation that an employee who takes FMLA leave will return to work after the leave ends. In order to secure these substantive rights, the FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere, restrain, or deny any right provided by the FMLA, or to otherwise retaliate against an employee for exercising FMLA rights.
Interference With FMLA Rights
In Zenith,a woman named Zentz brought a claim against his former employer, Dentive-Family First Dental, LLC (“DFFD”), pursuant to the FMLA. Zentz alleges that DFFD unlawfully interfered with her FMLA rights by failing to reinstate her to a previously agreed upon reduced work schedule, which ultimately led to her employment separation.
In 2018, Zentz was hired by DFFD to work as a full-time dentist. DFFD full-time dentists typically work four days per week. Zentz became pregnant in 2022. Zentz began her period of parental leave on September 27, 2022. Prior to her leave, Zentz and DFFD agreed that Zentz would return from parental leave to a reduced three-day work schedule. Zentz alleges that the reduced schedule was a permanent change.
Zentz was initially scheduled to return to work sometime at the end of December 2022 or the beginning of January 2023 but extended her leave by one month due to her new baby’s medical complications. Her return-to-work date after the extension was January 31, 2023.
On December 9, 2022, while still on leave, Zentz texted DFFD’s office manager to request vacation leave that would occur on February 17, 21, 22, and 24, 2023. On December 13, 2022, Zentz received an email response from DFFD regarding her vacation request. The email expressed disappointment and frustration with the timing of Zentz’s request and outlined the problems DFFD’s business endured because of Zentz’s absence. The email went on to state that DFFD was “happy” to provide coverage for Zentz’s first three months of leave, but when Zentz leave “was stretched to four months” and the was “compounded by a request for another week off, just 2 weeks after a four-month absence,” the employment relationship began “feeling too one-sided.” DFFD concluded that the employment relationship “may no longer be a fit.” DFFD ultimately denied Zentz’s request for vacation leave and stated that Zentz could either resume her four-day work schedule upon her return from leave or she could resign.
On December 15, 2022, Zentz responded that she was not resigning and that she would return on January 31, 2023 to the previously agreed upon three-day work schedule. DFFD replied on January 12, 2023 that if Zentz could not return to the four-day work schedule as proposed, DFFD would be “sorry to see [her] go.” Because of Zentz’s childcare arrangements, she could not accommodate a four-day workweek.
Cannot Consider Use Of FMLA Leave
DFFD filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Zentz’s FMLA interference claim. In moving for dismissal, DFFD contended that Zentz failed to establish that reverting her schedule back to the four-day workweek was motivated by her exercise of rights under the FMLA. The trial court denied DFFD’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Zentz had alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate that DFFD “improperly considered her FMLA leave as a negative factor when it reverted [her] scheduled back to the four-day workweek.” In support of its conclusion, the trial court explained that DFFD “explicitly referred to [Zentz’s] extension of FMLA leave when it denied her request for vacation leave and altered the previously agreed-upon work schedule.” The trial court further observed that DFFD’s comment regarding the additional month of FMLA leave occurred while [Zentz] was still on FMLA leave.”
Citrus County, FL Employment Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employees. If you have questions about your employee rights under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. 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.