Employment-Fourth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of FMLA Interference and Retaliation Claims

In Mercer v. The Arc of Prince Georges County, Inc., No. 13-1300 (4th Cir. 2013), the plaintiff, Adesina A. Mercer (“Mercer”), was appealing the district court’s grant of summary judgment to her former employer, defendant The Arc of Prince George’s County, Inc. (“The Arc”), on her claims for interference and retaliation, in violation of The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”).

In this case, The Arc hired Mercer as a full-time Finance and Benefits Coordinator in July 2004, a position she held until The Arc terminated her employment in March 2011. In January 2011, Mercer was involved in an automobile accident that left her severely injured and unable to work. She took FMLA leave from January 31 until February 22. While Mercer was on leave, Mercer’s co-workers performed her job responsibilities. In the process of doing so, they discovered and told supervisors at The Arc that many eligible clients of the Arc were no longer receiving food stamp benefits due to Mercer’s failure to submit renewal or redetermination requests over an extended period of time prior to her taking FMLA leave.
When Mercer returned to work on February 22, she was immediately placed on administrative leave due to unsatisfactory job performance and incomplete paperwork. At the end of that leave, Mercer took additional FMLA leave to March 14. Meanwhile, further investigation by The Arc uncovered more work deficiencies. On March 23, 2011, The Arc notified Mercer by letter that it was terminating her employment “due to unsatisfactory job performance” and that she was “considered not in good standing and [was] ineligible for rehire.” Mercer then brought this suit, alleging that the termination of her employment constituted unlawful interference with and retaliation against the exercise of her rights under the FMLA.

In analyzing the case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said, first, that the district court properly dismissed Mercer’s FMLA interference claim, as the record indicates that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether she would have been terminated from her employment if she had not taken FMLA leave. As to Mercer’s retaliation claim (here, alleged retaliation for taking FMLA leave), looking at the third step in the (borrowed from Title VII) McDonnell-Douglas framework, the Court concluded that the record similarly indicates that Mercer did not satisfy her burden to establish that The Arc’s proffered explanation for terminating Mercer’s employment is pretext for FMLA retaliation. Also, the Court also dismissed the argument that Mercer’s claim had been dismissed before she had the opportunity to conduct discovery. As such, the Court upheld the district court’s summary judgment against Mercer.