Don’t Play with FMLA! Long Time FSU Employee Settles After Termination Following Approval of FMLA Leave

Don’t Play with FMLA! Long Time FSU Employee Settles After Termination Following Approval of FMLA Leave

Kim Johnson had worked for Florida State University (“FSU”) for almost twenty-four years when her father was diagnosed with cancer.[i] When Ms. Johnson’s father began his cancer treatments, she applied and was approved for a month of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).[ii] Before she began her FMLA leave, Ms. Johnson also requested intermittent FMLA leave and the ability to work remotely.[iii] Before her one month of FMLA leave began, she was terminated.[iv]

On August 29, 2023, she sued the Florida State University Board of Trustees, alleging violations of the FMLA – specifically, retaliation for taking leave and interference with her right to take leave under this federal law.[v] The FMLA of 1993, as amended,[vi] provides “eligible employees”[vii] with the ability to take unpaid leave or substitute paid leave for various qualifying medical events.[viii] Medical events which qualify under FMLA are broad and include caring for a family member (specifically, a child, spouse, or parent) with a serious health condition.[ix]  Eligible employees may receive twelve weeks of unpaid leave or substitute paid leave without losing any seniority or position with their employer.[x] Making use of the benefits provided to eligible employees under FMLA cannot result in the loss of any benefits previously obtained by the employee. No requirement exists that FMLA leave be taken all at once. [xi] Eligible employees may take leave on an intermittent basis and may also work on a part-time basis.[xii]

The parties did not dispute whether FMLA applied to Ms. Johnson’s plan to assist her father while he was receiving cancer treatment.[xiii] The disputed issue was that FSU allegedly interfered with Ms. Johnson’s right to take leave under the FMLA and fired her in retaliation for her requested FMLA leave; FSU argued Ms. Johnson was not eligible to work remotely because of prior disciplinary issues.[xiv] FSU admitted in its answer and affirmative defenses it was a covered employer and subject to the FMLA.[xv] It also admitted Ms. Johnson requested intermittent leave under the FMLA.[xvi] As an affirmative defense, FSU stated the “[u]niversity’s actions were predicated upon grounds other than the employee’s exercise of a right protected by FMLA.”[xvii]

Although mediation was scheduled, the suit settled before the parties were to formally mediate on April 19, 2024.[xviii] On March 28, 2024, the parties notified the court that they had reached a settlement.[xix]

 

Takeaways

Businesses large enough to be a covered employer under FMLA need to be aware of the broad protections provided to eligible employees. FMLA is complex, but it provides both employers and employees the flexibility to handle a myriad of situations. FMLA is also widely litigated. If an employer wants to avoid litigation relating to an eligible employee who has requested FMLA leave, usually the safest course is to make a good faith effort to accommodate the employee. Employers should consider how a jury will perceive the actions taken, not just the black and white letter of the law. Employers should think twice if they choose to fire (1) pregnant women; (2) employees who have requested FMLA leave; or (3) employees after their FMLA leave has been approved. So remember: FMLA doesn’t play, and employers shouldn’t play with FMLA.

 

 

Keep Reading

Sources


 

[i] Compl., Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] 29 U.S.C. §2601 – §2654 (1993).

[vii] “Eligible employee” is defined a term under the FMLA.  29 C.F.R. §825.102 (2015). It generally means with a few exceptions to be “an employee who has been employed for a total of at least 12 months by the employer on the date on which any FMLA leave is to commence, …” Id.

[viii] 29 C.F.R. § 825.100 (2015).

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Answer, Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).

[xiv] Report of Parties Planning Meeting, Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).

[xv] Answer, Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Joint Status Report on Discovery, Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).

[xix] Joint Notice of Pending Settlement, Johnson v. Florida State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, No. 4:23-cv-385 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2023).