Magazine article HRMagazine

7th Circuit: Ill-Considered E-Mail Forms Basis of FMLA Lawsuit

Magazine article HRMagazine

7th Circuit: Ill-Considered E-Mail Forms Basis of FMLA Lawsuit

Article excerpt

Shaffer v. American Medical Association, 7th Cir., No. 10-2117 (Oct. 18, 2011).

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) prohibits employers from interfering with an employee's right to take leave that the employee is eligible for under the act and from retaliating against individuals who claim benefits under the statute. Recently, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal of an employee's FMLA lawsuit and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. A jury will now decide the issue of whether the individual's employment termination was based on his announcement that he was going to take four to six weeks of leave time for knee replacement surgery. A supervisor's e-mail that references an upcoming medical leave will be a primary element of the employee's claim.

William Shaffer first worked for the American Medical Association in 1999. Although he resigned a year later, the association rehired him in 2004 as a contract employee. In 2005, he was hired as a full-time employee and advanced to become director of leadership communications, reporting to supervisor Michael Lynch.

In August 2008, the association began taking cost-saving measures that included a request that all departments reduce budgets and, ultimately, eliminate positions. In October 2008, Lynch was contacted by the chief marketing officer, Marietta Parenti, who requested a recommendation regarding the elimination of one position in Lynch's group. It was Lynch's plan to eliminate the communication manager position held by Peter Friedman for certain business-related reasons. On Oct. 28, Parenti asked Lynch whether it made sense to eliminate Shaffer's position as well. Lynch responded that further eliminations would not be in the association's best interest at that time.

On Nov. 20, Shaffer informed Lynch that he was planning to take four to six weeks off in January to undergo and recover from knee replacement surgery. On Nov. 30, Lynch sent an e-mail to Parenti, explaining that he had rethought his recommendation and now believed that the association should eliminate Shaffer's position and retain Friedman. The email apologized for his "eleventh hour change of heart," and specifically stated that the team already was "preparing for [Shaffer's] short-term leave in January, so his departure should not have any immediate negative impact. …

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