Is Discouraging An Employee From Taking FMLA Leave Unlawful?
For more than twenty years, our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida have fought for the rights of employment discrimination victims. Through their extensive experience representing employment discrimination victims, our employment discrimination attorneys in Inverness, Florida know that employers often discourage employees from taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In far too many cases, employers actively discourage employees from taking FMLA leave by impeding their access to FMLA benefits by deceit, concealment, or intimidation. The most common way employers actively discourage employees from taking FMLA leave is by threatening them with discipline or termination if they take FMLA leave. In this article, our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida explain how the decision in Ziccarelli v. Dart, 35 F.4th 1079 (7th Cir. 2022) demonstrates that it is unlawful for employers to discourage employees from taking FMLA leave.
Employee FMLA Rights
The FMLA states that its purpose is “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families” while guaranteeing employees access to medical leave “in a manner that accommodates the legitimate interests of employers.” To that end, the FMLA grants eligible employees up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave per year for medical and family reasons. At the end of FMLA leave, an eligible employee is entitled to restoration to the same or equivalent job and benefits. To protect these rights, the FMLA prohibits employers from (1) interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of FMLA rights, and (2) retaliating against employees for exercising their FMLA rights.
In Ziccarelli, a man named Ziccarelli brought a claim against his former employer, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (Sheriff’s Office), pursuant to the FMLA. Ziccarelli alleges that the Sheriff’s Office unlawfully interfered with his FMLA rights by discouraging him from taking FMLA leave.
In 1989, Ziccarelli began working for the Sheriff’s Office as a corrections officer. During his employment, Ziccarelli developed several serious health conditions for which he requested and received permission to take leave under the FMLA. From 2007 through early 2016, Ziccarelli used between 10 and 169 hours of FMLA leave per year. In July 2016, Ziccarelli sought treatment from a psychiatrist for his work-related PTSD, and by September he had used 304 hours of his allowable 480 hours of FMLA leave for 2016. On the advice of his doctor, Ziccarelli then decided that he should apply for permanent disability benefits. To do so, he needed to exhaust all his earned sick leave.
On his doctor’s recommendation, Ziccarelli planned to use some of his available sick leave and annual leave to enroll in an eight-week treatment program to address his PTSD. In September 2016, Ziccarelli called his supervisor, Shinnawi, to discuss the possibility of using a combination of FMLA leave, sick leave, and annual leave for his treatment program. Shinnawi was authorized to approve or deny use of FMLA benefits.
Ziccarelli’s and Shinnawi’s accounts of their conversation differ starkly. Ziccarelli testified that he called Shinnawi and told her that he needed to use more FMLA leave so he could seek treatment. According to Ziccarelli, Shinnawi responded by saying: “you’ve taken serious amounts of FMLA . . . don’t take any more FMLA. If you do so, you will be disciplined.” In Ziccarelli’s account, Shinnawi never explained what discipline he might be subject to for taking more FMLA leave but based on his past experience with the Sheriff’s Office, he feared that he would be fired. Ziccarelli retired from the Sheriff’s Office shortly after speaking with Shinnawi, effective September 20, 2016. Ziccarelli did not take FMLA leave before he departed.
Discouraging Leave Is FMLA Violation
The trial court dismissed Ziccarelli’s FMLA interference claim. The trial court ruled that in order to establish an FMLA interference claim, an employee must show an actual denial of FMLA benefits. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Ziccarelli’s FMLA interference claim.
The threshold issue before the Seventh Circuit was whether an employee must show that he or she was actually denied FMLA benefits in order to establish an FMLA interference claim. Stated another way, is it unlawful under the FMLA for employers to discourage workers from taking FMLA leave so long as no unlawful denial of FMLA benefits occurs? The Seventh Circuit determined that a “denial of FMLA benefits is not required to demonstrate an FMLA interference violation.” Rather, “interference or restraint alone is enough to establish a violation,” and a remedy is available under the FMLA if the employee “can show prejudice from” the interference or restraint. Because discouraging employees from taking FMLA leave is an interference with FMLA rights, the Seventh Circuit held that discouraging employees from taking FMLA leave is unlawful even without an actual denial of FMLA benefits.
In applying these principles, the Seventh Circuit observed that Ziccarelli “had over one month of FMLA leave available when he called Shinnawi in September 2016 to request FMLA leave.” According to Ziccarelli, though, when he asked to take “more” FMLA leave, Shinnawi responded by saying “don’t take any more FMLA. If you do so, you will be disciplined.” “Threatening to discipline an employee for seeking or using FMLA to leave to which he is entitled, the appellate court explained, “clearly qualifies as interference with FMLA rights.” Based on this evidence, the court of appeals concluded that a “reasonable jury could believe Ziccarelli’s account and find that the Sheriff’s Office (through Shinnawi) interfered with his remaining FMLA leave hours for 2016 by threatening to discipline him for using them.” “It is enough,” the Seventh Circuit emphasized, that “Ziccarelli presents evidence allowing a reasonable jury to conclude that the Sheriff’s Office discouraged him from exercising his FMLA rights.”
Citrus County Employment Discrimination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida, and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment discrimination attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employment discrimination victims. If you have experienced workplace discrimination or have questions about your employee rights under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination 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.