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Employers already face significant difficulties when FMLA leave-related disputes arise. A recent court ruling only increases the challenges companies deal with when disciplining or terminating an employee who is on or just completed FMLA leave.
Cassandra Woods was an employee of START Treatment & Recovery Centers. Issues related and not related to work affected her performance. As the problems increased, her employer felt the need to document her inability to achieve what they deemed “required outcomes” involving her job.
In response to her perceived shortcomings, START offered Woods enhanced training. When that solution did not seem to fix the problem, they placed Woods on a 90-day probation period.
Prior to that decision, Woods had already taken multiple FMLA leaves for her severe anemia and other medical afflictions. Upon returning to work in what would be her final leave that lasted 12 days, Woods’ supervisor suggested firing her to his higher-ups. One week later, that suggestion became a reality. Woods was fired.
In the lawsuit Woods filed against her now former employer, she claimed that retaliation over her FMLA leave resulted in her losing her job. START countered that the termination was based on performance alone. To bolster their case, START submitted performance reviews as evidence of her shortcomings and their solutions to keep her on the job.
The subsequent rulings against and in favor of Woods came down to two two-word phrases: “But for” and “motivating factor.”
A district court jury ruled that Woods failed to show that she would not have lost her job but for the FMLA leave. An appeals court saw it differently, creating a more open-ended standard for proving retaliation. They ruled that Woods only needed to show a motivating factor that in part led to the company’s decision.
The appellate decision is being sent back to trial for a jury to determine if Woods can meet what now is a significantly reduced standard for FMLA retaliation.