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Complaint alleging interference under FMLA dismissed

Call center manager fired after med leave

call-center-webAn employee who was fired as soon as her medical leave ended could not sue her employer for interfering with her Family and Medical Leave Act rights, a federal judge has determined.

The defendant employer and a co-defendant vice president argued that the plaintiff employee could not assert an interference claim based solely on her entitlement to restoration to her prior job, because such a claim was essentially a retaliation claim “masquerading as” an interference claim.

“The Court … agrees with Defendants that [the plaintiff] has not alleged facts under the FMLA sufficient to set forth an interference claim separate from her retaliation claim,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge William E. Smith wrote.

The nine-page decision is Warrener v. AAA of Southern New England, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 52-053-15. The full text of the ruling can be found at rilawyersweekly.com.

Louise A. Herman of Providence represented the plaintiff. The defendants were represented by Providence attorneys Stacie B. Collier and Jessica Schachter Jewell.

AAA employment

Plaintiff Kerri Warrener was hired by defendant AAA of Southern New England as a road service counselor in 1989. She was promoted to assistant manager of the Road Service Call Center in 2007.

The plaintiff suffered from anxiety and depression, substantially limiting her major life activities but not preventing her from performing the essential functions of her job.

On July 2, 2012, she requested a three-month medical leave of absence as a “reasonable accommodation.”

In a memo dated Oct. 1, the day before the plaintiff’s scheduled return from medical leave, defendant John Nardolillo, the vice president of automotive services at AAA, recommended that she be fired based on “perceived personal relationships” with subordinates. On Oct. 2, the day the plaintiff returned from leave, she was fired.

Count 10 of the plaintiff’s complaint constituted her interference claim, alleging that the defendants “interfered with, restrained and denied” her FMLA rights. Count 11 alleged that the defendants retaliated against her for exercising her right to medical leave.

‘Essence’ of Count 10

The defendants contended that the plaintiff’s interference claim failed because she received all of the leave to which she could have been entitled.

“Warrener’s allegations make clear that she took a leave of 12 weeks, and thus, according to Defendants, she cannot claim she was denied leave,” Smith noted. “Her interference claims can therefore only be based on Defendants’ failure to restore her to her prior job.”

Under the FMLA, a plaintiff may claim both interference and retaliation, Smith said.

“The elements of interference and retaliation claims differ in that, to establish retaliation, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that an employer’s adverse action was in retaliation for the exercise of protected rights, whereas an interference claim does not depend on the employer’s motive,” he added. “In certain instances, however, a ‘non-retaliation’ claim for interference cannot be supported, because the facts alleged only substantiate a retaliation-based claim.”

The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim could be based only on her right to reinstatement, given that she was not denied leave.

“She is only entitled to restoration, however, if she was wrongfully terminated based on her having taken leave under FMLA,” the judge stated. “Conversely, if she was terminated for reasons unrelated to her having taken leave under FMLA, she would not be entitled to restoration and thus could not claim her FMLA rights were violated.”

Therefore, Smith said, while motive does not impact interference claims under the 1st U.S. Circuit of Appeals’ 2005 decision in Colburn v. Parker Hannifin/Nichols Portland Division, only if the defendants terminated Warrener for retaliatory reasons could she establish her right to FMLA relief.

“Her claim is thus, in essence, a claim for retaliation,” the judge said. “Count 10, alleging interference under the FMLA, therefore fails to state a claim, and must be dismissed.”

The plaintiff’s complaint also included a count alleging that the defendants “discriminated against” her and “violated her statutory rights” under the Rhode Island Parental and Family Medical Leave Act.

“Nothing in the language of Count 12 suggests that Warrener meant to set forth a claim for interference,” Smith said. “Thus, Defendants’ arguments do not warrant dismissal of Warrener’s RIPFMLA claims in Count 12.”

For JUMPBOX

CASE: Warrener v. AAA of Southern New England, et al., Lawyers Weekly No. 52-053-15

COURT: U.S. District Court

ISSUE: Could an employee who was fired as soon as she completed her medical leave sue her employer for interfering with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

DECISION: No, because the interference claim was in essence a claim for retaliation

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