ERISA-Eleventh Circuit Rules That Employer’s Absence Of Knowledge Causes Employee’s Claims of FMLA Retaliation And Interference and ERISA Inteference To Fail

In Krutzig v. Pulte Home Corporation, No. 09-12512 (11th Circuit 2010), the plaintiff had been terminated from employment with her employer, the defendant, and had claimed that the termination was an act of retaliation and interference with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to take FMLA leave, and an act of interference with her request under ERISA for short-term disability benefits. The district court had entered summary judgment on those claims in favor of the defendant.

In analyzing the case, the Court said that a prima facie case of retaliation under the FMLA requires a showing that: (1) the employee engaged in statutorily protected conduct, (2) the employee suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) there is a causal connection between the two. The causal connection is established if a plaintiff shows that the protected activity and adverse action were not wholly unrelated, such as by showing that the decision maker was aware of the protected conduct at the time of the adverse employment action. Temporal proximity alone, however, is not sufficient to establish a causal connection, when there is unrebutted evidence that the decision maker was not aware of the protected activity. For this purpose, knowledge on the part of persons, e.g., supervisors, cannot be imputed to the decision maker. A prima facie case of an ERISA interference claim requires a similar showing.

The Court then said that the only issue presented in this case, with respect to the plaintiff’s prima facie case of FMLA retaliation and ERISA interference, is whether the plaintiff created a question of material fact as to whether the decision maker was aware of her request for FMLA leave or short-term disability benefits before deciding to terminate her employment. Here, the employer/defendant offered affirmative, unrebutted evidence that the decision makers in question were not aware of these requests at the time of the termination. Thus, the Court ruled that the plaintiff failed to establish her prima facie cases of FMLA retaliation and ERISA interference, and upheld the summary judgment against her on those matters.

As to the plaintiff’s claim of interference with her FMLA rights, the Court said that the right to take an FMLA leave is not absolute. An employee can be dismissed, preventing her from exercising her right to take FMLA leave, without thereby violating the FMLA, if the employee would have been dismissed regardless of any request for FMLA leave. In this case, the unrebutted evidence that the decision maker was not aware, at the time of the decision to terminate the plaintiff, of her request to take FMLA leave establishes as a matter of law that the plaintiff’s termination was for reasons other than her requested leave. As such, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim fails, and upheld the summary judgment against her on that claim.