Sixth Circuit Allows Employer to Terminate Employee After FMLA Leave

September 29th, 2012

Category: Labor and Employment Law

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed an employer to terminate an employee on the day he returns from Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)  leave, despite  the requirement that an employee is “to be restored by the employer to the position of employment held by the employee when the leave commenced” or “to be restored to an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.”

In the case, the employer terminated the employee on the day that he was scheduled to return from FMLA leave, allegedly due to economic hardship and the employee’s status as the highest-paid and lowest-performing of the workers in his unit.  The employee sued, alleging the employer violated FMLA by interfering with his rights under the Act, and retaliating against him for taking the leave.

The case was reviewed under the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis. First, the Court concluded that the employee met his prima face case. The Court then reviewed the employer’s legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reason for terminating the employee, and, third, the employee’s evidence that the employer’s reasons for terminating him were a pretext.  Under the circumstances of this case, the Court found that the employer produced sufficient evidence to support “legitimate reasons unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights” that severe economic hardship forced it to eliminate “numerous positions” and that the employee was “the highest-paid, lowest-performing worker.”

This case is a useful reminder that although the FMLA provides for reinstatement after leave, it is not a right, and that an employee can be terminated for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons unrelated to FMLA.  A prudent employer will nevertheless proceed with caution and ensure there is a sound factual basis in support of the reasons for not proceeding with a reinstatement.

The case is Winterhalter v. Dykhuis Farms, Inc., Case No. 11-1743 (6th Cir. July 23, 2012)

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