The Sixth Circuit Settles It: FMLA Interference Claims Should Be Evaluated Under the McDonnell Douglas Framework
Even though the FMLA has been around since 1993, the Sixth Circuit did not get around to designating the appropriate framework for reviewing FMLA interference claims until January 17, 2012.
In Donald v. Sybra, Inc., Case No. 10-2153 (6th Cir. January 17, 2012) the Sixth Circuit held that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to FMLA interference cases.
The case concerned an Arby’s franchise that terminated Gwendolyn Donald’s employment after it determined that she had been improperly discounting drive-in window orders and pocketing the difference. Among other allegations, she claimed that her employer terminated her employment in retaliation for taking FMLA leave and to interfere with her FMLA rights. The main issue underlying Donald's claims was timing because she was terminated the day she returned from a short FMLA absence.
The district court dismissed Donald's claims after concluding that the timing of her termination the day she returned from her FMLA leave was insufficient to overcome Sybra's claim that she was fired because of her suspicious conduct.
In affirming the district court, the Sixth Circuit began its analysis by laying out the elements for an FMLA interference case:
- the plaintiff must be an "eligible employee" under the FMLA;
- the defendant be an "employer" under the FMLA;
- the plaintiff must be "entitled" for leave under the FMLA;
- the plaintiff must give her employer notice of the intent to take leave; and
- the employer must deny the employee FMLA benefits.
The Court then went on to conclude that its decision Grace v. USCAR, 521 F.3d 655, 670 (6th Cir. 2008) (holding that an employer may defend against an FMLA interference case by showing that it had a legitimate reason unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights for terminating an employee and that the employee can then rebut this reason by showing that it has no basis in fact and did not actually motivate the termination decision), "effectively adopted the McDonnell Douglas tripartite test without saying as much."
Oddly enough, even though the Court took the time to outline all the elements of an FMLA interference claim under McDonnell Douglas, it opted not to analyze them. Instead, it skipped on to Donald's pretext burden and ultimately concluded that the timing of Sybra's decision to terminate Donald's employer was not enough to establish that Sybra's decision was improper.
This case is useful to employers because it puts finality on the issue of the proper standard of proof in FMLA interference cases; and, in doing so, ensures that plaintiffs have the burden to prove pretext.