Employment-Sixth Circuit Rules That The Firing Of An Employee Did Not Violate The FMLA, But May Have Violated ERISA

In Stein v. Atlas Industries, Inc., No. 17-3737 (6th Cir. 2018) (Unpublished Opinion), the following took place.  A few years back, Robert Stein, an employee of Atlas Industries, Inc. (“Atlas”), had two misfortunes.  First, his son became very ill, and barely survived.  Second, Stein tore his meniscus.  That injury required surgery, so Stein took medical leave to have an operation and recover.  About ten weeks into his recovery, Stein went for a checkup.  There, Stein says that he was told that he would not be released to work until August 10.  However, Stein concedes that he was given a release slip from the doctor’s office that released him to work as of July 20, but to perform only office work until August 10.  Stein gave that release slip to Atlas’s workers’ compensation office.  After that visit, the doctor’s office notified Atlas that Stein could return to work with light-duty restrictions in just two days.  As a result of all this, Atlas expected Stein to return to work the following Monday, but Stein thought he was on leave for several more weeks.

On Monday, Stein neither showed up for work nor called in.  Tuesday and Wednesday were no different—Atlas heard nothing from Stein.  So on Thursday, Atlas fired him.  Company policy, his bosses said: Employees who missed three workdays without notification to Atlas were subject to automatic termination.  No exceptions.  Stein sued, claiming that Atlas violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”) and ERISA by firing him.  The district court granted Atlas summary judgment, and Stein now appeals.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) reviewed the case.  The Court noted that the FMLA guarantees eligible employees up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to recover from a serious medical condition.  Stein claims that by firing him while he was on leave after his knee surgery, Atlas interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for exercising them.  However, said the Court, the FMLA provides that an employee who has a serious health condition can take up to twelve weeks of leave per year. See 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D).  But the FMLA does not grant an unconditional right to leave.  To qualify, an employee must comply with his employer’s usual and customary notice and procedural requirements, including internal call-in policies. 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(d).  Having failed to so comply; Stein cannot prevail on his claims of interference in violation of the FMLA.  His claim of retaliation in violation of the FMLA also fails, since he could not establish a causal connection between the retaliatory action (the firing) and the protected activity (the right to FMLA leave).  There was no temporal proximity between the firing and the start of Stein’s absence from employment, as he was terminated ten weeks after that absence began.  As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment as it pertains to the FMLA claim.

Stein’s ERISA claim was also based on interference and retaliation.  The Court said that, to prevail on the interference part of this claim, Stein must show that Atlas fired him in order to interfere with his ability to receive future benefits for his ill son under Atlas’s employee health-care plan.  And to prevail on the retaliation part of the claim, Stein must prove that his past claims under that plan were causally linked to Atlas’s decision to fire him.  Here, the Court found that Stein produced enough evidence as to both parts of the ERISA claim, that a jury could find that an ERISA violation occurred. As such, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the ERISA claim, and remanded the case back to the district court.