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Do Co-Workers’ Discourteous Attitudes Establish FMLA Retaliation?

By on July 21, 2016 in FMLA with 0 Comments

The Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is one of the laws about which employment lawyers get the most questions.  The FMLA can be complicated to apply to factual situations and employers are justifiably concerned that if they take disciplinary action against an employee after he/she returns from FMLA leave, even if the discipline is based upon clearly documented performance problems, that the employee will bring suit claiming FMLA retaliation.  In a recent case, the United States District Court for the District of Eastern Pennsylvania analyzed whether or not an employee made a valid retaliation claim when she alleged that upon her return to work from FMLA leave, co-workers were discourteous towards her and her employer chose to enforce her resignation, even after she had rescinded it.

Facts of the Case

In Checa v. Drexel University, No. 16-08, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83524 (E.D.Pa June 28, 2016), the plaintiff, Debra Checa (“Checa”), was employed by Drexel University College of Medicine (“Drexel”) as a program manager and fellowship coordinator.  In June 2014, Checa took three months of FMLA qualifying leave of absence from Drexel in order to undergo carpel tunnel surgery.  While Checa was on leave, her mother passed away. Checa asked Drexel to extend her leave for a short period of time due to her mother’s passing.  Drexel approved the extended leave.

On the day that Checa returned to work, her co-workers allegedly did not give her a warm welcome and failed to offer condolences for her mother’s passing.  Also, on her first day back, Checa was called into a meeting with two co-workers, Christina Zervoudakes, the employee that had been performing Checa’s work while she was on leave and Kathy Lally, the employee who provided administrative support to Checa’s department, to discuss Checa’s transition back to work.  During the meeting, Ms. Zervoudakes presented Checa with a list of incomplete tasks which Checa had failed to complete before her leave, despite promising to do so.  Moreover, during the meeting, neither Ms. Zervoudakes nor Ms. Lally offered condolences to Checa regarding her mother’s passing. Checa became upset and told Ms. Zervoudakes and Ms. Lally that she was quitting.  Checa then returned to her office and called her supervisor and advised her supervisor that she quit. Later the same day, Checa emailed her supervisor to confirm that she had quit.  The next morning, Checa met with her supervisor and attempted to rescind her resignation.  Drexel did not allow Checa to rescind her resignation.  Thereafter, Checa brought suit in Federal Court against Drexel claiming FMLA retaliation/constructive discharge. Drexel filed for summary judgment.

In order to prevail on a FMLA retaliation claim, the plaintiff must prove that she 1) invoked her right to FMLA qualifying leave 2) she suffered an adverse employment action and 3) the adverse action was causally related to her invocation of rights.  The Court found in this case that Checa had not established a prima facie case of retaliation because she could not show that she suffered an adverse employment action.

Analysis

The Court held that the meeting between Checa and her co-workers was not an adverse employment action because it did not alter her terms or conditions of employment.  Moreover, attending the meeting did not significantly impact Checa’s ability to work or advance her career.  Checa’s co-workers, Ms. Zervoudakes and Ms. Lally, were providing Checa with performance feedback at the meeting related to Checa’s transition back to work.  This meeting was perfectly acceptable and lawful.  The Court also held that Ms. Zervoudakes and Ms. Lally’s failure to exchange pleasantries with Checa was not an adverse employment action under the law.

In regards to Checa’s constructive discharge claim, although the meeting upset Checa, the Court held that a reasonable employee in her position would not have found one meeting so intolerable that she had to resign.  This is supported by the fact that the day after the meeting, Checa attempted to rescind her resignation.

The Court also analyzed Drexel’s refusal to allow Checa to rescind her resignation and found that this refusal was not an adverse employment action. Checa’s resignation was completely voluntary and Drexel’s decision not to allow Checa to rescind her resignation did not alter her privileges of employment, deprive her of employment opportunities, or adversely affect her status as an employee because she had already resigned. Checa’s resignation was unprofessional and validated Drexel’s decision not to let her return to work.

Drexel’s motion for summary judgment was granted and Checa’s case was dismissed.

What does this mean for employers?

This case clarifies the meaning of “adverse employment” action as it relates to a retaliation case.  Employers have the right to hold meetings upon an employee’s return to work to discuss performance issues from before the employee left for leave.  Moreover, if co-workers are discourteous to an employee when she returns from leave, this does not automatically amount to retaliation or constructive discharge.  This case also clarifies that if an employee resigns from employment and then attempts to rescind that resignation, it is lawful for the employer to enforce the resignation.  If the resignation was unprofessional and unwarranted in the first place, employers are not required to allow employees to return to work.

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