Terminating an employee who took FMLA leave? Here’s how one employer prevailed in court


Employers need legitimate, FMLA-unrelated reasons for termination

On September 23, 2019, Demetria's knee began to hurt, and her leg began to swell. She went to the company clinic, where she was told to go home and follow up with her doctor. 

She applied for and was approved for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) beginning September 25, 2019.

While her doctor indicated that she would need to sit and rest for 15 minutes out of every hour, the company safety specialist sent her home. The specialist didn't consider a workplace accommodation because the stations where Demetria worked required her to stand.

Demetria's condition got worse, and her work restrictions increased. She was off work for a year, exhausting her 12 weeks of FMLA leave. She still could not provide an estimated return to work date and was terminated.

As a result, she sued, in part under the FMLA. She alleged FMLA retaliation in four ways, but her arguments failed. Here's why:

The employee alleged that the employer retaliated against her by:The employee's argument failed because:
Failing to provide her with adequate notice, information, and leave required by the FMLA.She did not, however, know when this failure occurred.
Refusing to allow her to request leave provided by the FMLA.The evidence showed that that she requested and was given FMLA leave.
Threatening her with termination and loss of accrued benefits.There was no evidence of a threat or benefit loss, and the employee did not contest this.
Terminating her in retaliation for requesting or attempting to request FMLA leave.She did not provide evidence that her taking of FMLA leave was the reason for the termination.


Demetria had no direct evidence that the employer retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave. She had to rely on circumstantial evidence, so she had to show that the termination decision was related to, or caused by, her FMLA leave. Even if she could do so, the employer could show that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.

The employee could not muster evidence of this, so her FMLA claim failed on all parts. The employer fired her long after she exhausted FMLA leave, and because she could not return to work or provide a date in which she could return.

Butler-Smith v. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, Middle District of Alabama, No. 2:21-cv-598, April 6, 2023.

Key to Remember: Employers can prevail on FMLA claims when they have evidence that they did not retaliate against employees for taking FMLA leave, but rather, they have legitimate, unrelated reasons for taking a negative employment action.

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.


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