Perhaps you have heard the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit (whose rulings apply to all Rhode Island employers) on an employee’s claim of retaliatory discharge created an exception to that rule. Specifically, the 1st Circuit ruled that a supervisor’s ignorance of an employee’s status under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was a defense to the employee’s claim that the supervisor retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave.
Injury and leave of absence
Robert Chase worked as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for nearly 14 years. He never received a negative performance review, and he had a clean disciplinary record. Michael King was his direct supervisor.
On July 21, 2010, Chase’s vehicle was struck by another car while he was parked outside during his lunch break. He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a serious shoulder injury. King went to the scene of the accident to observe the severity of the accident and Chase’s injury and to prepare a report of the incident.
Chase applied for workers’ compensation leave and FMLA leave, both of which were approved. From the date of his injury until October 12, 2010, he took workers’ comp leave and FMLA leave concurrently. He received pay continuation for the first 45 days of leave. After his FMLA leave expired, he continued to take workers’ comp leave until September 30, 2011, when he was discharged.
Chase filed interference and retaliation claims against King and the USPS, arguing that they violated the FMLA by firing him while he was out of work on protected leave. Following a bench trial, the district court held that King and the USPS did not violate the FMLA because King, the decision maker, did not know that Chase’s leave was designated as FMLA leave. Chase appealed.
Public mocking by King
Chase introduced evidence that King publicly mocked him for taking medical leave and accused him of faking injuries. For example, in August 2010, a month after Chase’s motor vehicle accident and while he was taking workers’ comp and FMLA leave, King posted a job opening on the office bulletin board for an “injury compensation specialist.” King then issued an announcement mocking Chase: “There’s a job posted on the bulletin board for an . . . injury compensation specialist since you’re the biggest fraud when it comes to injuries.” A coworker testified that she heard King say Chase was faking the shoulder injury and that King announced on multiple occasions: “Can I have the carrier on Route 92 [Chase] who is faking an injury come to the office[,] please?”
King claimed that he believed Chase was on workers’ comp leave and that he “assumed” Chase was not on FMLA leave because FMLA leave is often unpaid. King incorrectly believed employees used FMLA leave only after they exhausted all forms of paid leave such as workers’ comp leave. To his knowledge, Chase had not exhausted all forms of paid leave.
The FMLA provides employees suffering from serious injuries or medical conditions up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave in a 12-month period. An employee may take FMLA leave for a serious health condition that makes him unable to perform the functions of his position. An employee may be eligible for workers’ comp leave and FMLA leave at the same time for the same underlying medical condition. If that is the case, the employer may require the employee to take the two types of leave concurrently.
An employer may not interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise a right provided under the FMLA, and an employer may not discharge or discriminate against an individual who takes FMLA leave. Additionally, an employer may not consider FMLA leave as a negative factor in an employment action.
To establish a claim of retaliation under the FMLA, an employee must show that the employer took an adverse action because of a prohibited reason, not for a legitimate nonretaliatory reason. The employee must show that (1) he availed himself of a protected right under the FMLA, (2) he was adversely affected by an employment decision, and (3) there is a causal connection between his FMLA leave and the adverse employment action. In this case, Chase argued that he took job-protected FMLA leave and that he was discharged because he took FMLA leave.
King’s ignorance was a defense
The court noted that King was aware of Chase’s injury and that Chase took a medical leave of absence. However, the court held there was no evidence that King knew Chase was taking FMLA-protected leave. Because King incorrectly believed that Chase was on paid workers’ comp leave and not FMLA leave, the court held that King could not have acted with retaliatory animus based on Chase’s FMLA leave.
The court noted that an employee “must show that the retaliator knew about [his] protected activity—after all, one cannot have been motivated to retaliate by something he was unaware of.” It agreed with the district court that “it was the workers’ compensation leave—not the concurrent FMLA leave—which angered King and contributed to Chase’s termination.” Therefore, the dismissal of Chase’s FMLA claims was affirmed.
In this case, the court affirmed the dismissal of the case against the USPS. However, King’s statements mocking Chase for taking job-protected medical leave likely would have been sufficient for the USPS to be liable for FMLA retaliation had the court found that King knew Chase was taking FMLA leave and workers’ comp leave concurrently. Train supervisors on how to handle employees’ leaves of absence. Supervisors should never discipline, discharge, or publicly mock employees for taking approved medical or family leave.