What is Required for an Employee to Prevail on a Claim for FMLA Interference?

On February 12, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a federal lawsuit under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") alleging FMLA interference and retaliation.  Hickey v. Protective Life Corporation, No. 20-1076 (7th Cir. 2/12/2021).  The plaintiff brought his lawsuit under the FMLA alleging that his former employer had interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and had retaliated against him for exercising those rights.  The district court held that he could not succeed on his FMLA interference claim because he could not prove that he had suffered any monetary damages as a result of the alleged interference or was otherwise entitled to equitable relief.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had no cognizable claim for FMLA interference in the absence of any evidence that he suffered harm for which the FMLA provides a monetary or equitable remedy.

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for exercising those rights through three unlawful acts: (1) his fourth-quarter performance review; (2) the denial of his transfer; and (3) the termination of his employment.  To recover under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show monetary damages resulting from the alleged interference.  However, the plaintiff's compensation had not been reduced and would not be reduced for six months following his return to work.  In addition, he had not come forward with any evidence that he had been offered a transfer; the mere possibility of a transfer was too speculative of a basis for relief.  The district court concluded that the plaintiff could not show that any interference with his FMLA leave resulted in any monetary damages or entitled him to equitable relief.  According to the district court, his employment was terminated because he had refused to work for a supervisor, which had no relationship to his FMLA leave.  Because the termination of his employment was lawful, the plaintiff was not entitled to reinstatement of employment. 

The FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided in the FMLA.  Among the rights guaranteed by the FMLA is the right of an employee to be restored to the same position as she held when the employee's leave commenced or to an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.  To prevail on an FMLA interference claim, an employee must establish that: (1) she was eligible for FMLA protection; (2) her employer was covered under the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take FMLA leave; and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  An employee need only show that her employer deprived her of an FMLA entitlement; no finding of ill intent is required.  With respect to an FMLA interference claim, the employee need not allege that her employer intended to deny the benefit, because the employer's motives are irrelevant.

The remedies for violation of the FMLA include damages equal to the amount of any wages, salary, employment benefits, or other compensation denied or lost by reason of the violation, as well as any actual monetary losses directly resulting from the violation.  The FMLA also allows a court to award equitable relief as may be appropriate, including employment, reinstatement, and promotion.  Therefore, in order to recover under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show that she suffered damage, which (1) is redressable under the FMLA and (2) results from the alleged interference.  Otherwise, summary judgment for the employer is appropriate.  

The plaintiff did not suffer any loss of wages or benefits prior to his employment being terminated.  Moreover, he did not establish that he had been offered, or had accepted, a different position prior to the termination of his employment.  Consequently, he did not come forward with any basis for monetary or equitable relief under the FMLA, and, therefore, the employer-defendant was entitled to summary judgment.