Employment-First Circuit Holds That Employer Did Not Retaliate Against Former Employee In Violation of FMLA

In Henry v. United Bank, No. 11-1666 (1st Circuit 2012), the plaintiff, Kathy Henry (“Henry”), was appealing an award of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, United Bank, on her claim of retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”). Henry’s claims arose from United Bank’s decision to terminate her employment after she had exhausted 12 weeks of medical leave.

In this case, Henry began working for United Bank in 2006 as a commercial loan administrative assistant and in the following year was promoted to the position of commercial credit analyst. As a credit analyst, her tasks included evaluating the credit-worthiness of commercial borrowers and making lending recommendations. In January 2008, Henry began experiencing neck pain, blurred vision, and dizziness. During 2008, Henry was absent from work on various occasions due to her medical condition. Eventually, United Bank told Henry that her employment was terminated, since the Bank cannot continue to hold her position open indefinitely, and that she had already been given a full 12-week period of FMLA leave commencing July 1, 2008.

In analyzing the case, the First Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that the FMLA entitles eligible private sector employees to take, for medical reasons, reasonable leave up to a maximum of twelve weeks, and then to return to the same or an alternative position with some equivalency. The FMLA also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their statutory rights. Thus, an employer cannot regard the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in deciding to terminate an employee. The employee may nevertheless can be discharged for independent reasons.

The Court continued by saying that the issue here is whether the bank’s proffered business decision for terminating Henry– that it could not hold Henry’s position open indefinitely — is supported by evidence, or is merely a pretext for impermissible retaliation for taking FMLA leave. United Bank offered testimony that the credit analysis department was critical to the bank’s business, that the department’s workload was expected to increase for a number of reasons, and that, without Henry, the remaining credit analysts were overworked. The testimony also indicated that no other employee in the bank was available to temporarily fill Henry’s analyst position, and that hiring a temporary employee was not a wise business practice, due to the confidential nature of the client information to which the credit analysts have access and the particularized training involved in preparing an employee to competently perform the job. The Court concluded that testimony showed that United Bank’s decision to terminate Henry was supported by legitimate, nonretaliatory business reasons. As such, the Court concluded that Henry’s claim of retaliation in violation of the FMLA fails, and the Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of United Bank.