Employment-Ninth Circuit Rules That Jury Was Given Improper Instruction On FMLA Claim

In Sanders v. City of Newport, Nos. 08-35996, 09-35119, 09-35196 ( 9th Cir. 2011), the plaintiff, Diane Sanders (“Sanders”), was a former employee of the City of Newport (“the City”). Sanders sued the City when it refused to reinstate her, and ultimately fired her, after she took an approved medical leave. In her complaint, Sanders alleged that, among other things, the City had interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”). At trial, a jury decided against Sanders on this point. Sander’s appealed, claiming that the district court improperly instructed the jury on the elements of her FMLA interference claim. The Ninth Circuit Court agreed with Sanders on this point. Accordingly, the Court remanded the case back to the district court for a new trial.

After some debate among the district court, Sanders and the City, the district court had instructed the jury to consider whether the plaintiff had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the City, without reasonable cause, failed to reinstate her after she took an FMLA leave. The Ninth Circuit Court said that this instruction placed the burden of proof on Sanders to establish that the City had no reasonable cause for failing to reinstate her. There are two errors. First, under FMLA, an employee generally has the right to reinstatement after the FMLA leave ends. FMLA regulations (for example, see 29 C.F.R. § 825.214(a) and (b), 825.216(a) and 825.312(d) ) indicate that the burden is on the employer to show that he had a legitimate reason to deny reinstatement to an employee. Thus, it was erroneous for the district court’s instruction to put the burden of proof on Sanders. Second, the FMLA and its regulations do not allow an employer to interfere with an employee’s right to reinstatement for “reasonable cause.” (for example, see 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(3) and 29 C.F .R. § 825.216). Consequently, it was erroneous for the district court’s instruction to require Sanders to prove that the City did not have reasonable cause for not reinstating her.