On May 6, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied summary judgment on a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliatory transfer claim. The court found that the employer’s explanation for eliminating the plaintiff’s position while she was on leave, the timing of the decision, and remarks made during the plaintiff’s FMLA absence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the plaintiff’s transfer was in retaliation for her exercise of FMLA rights. Ottley-Cousin v. MMC Holdings, Inc., No. 16-CV-00577 (MKB).
Carla Ottley-Cousin worked for MMC Holdings from May 2000 until November 2015. In September 2014, Ottley-Cousin requested two weeks of FMLA leave to care for her son, which was approved. Ottley-Cousin requested additional time off, and MMC Holdings extended her leave until December 2014. However, Ottley-Cousin ultimately did not return to work until February 2015.
In October 2014, when Ottley-Cousin’s supervisor learned that she submitted disability paperwork and needed to be replaced by a temporary employee, the supervisor expressed her disbelief and called Ottley-Cousin’s disability request “unreal.”
Before she was permitted to return to work, Ottley-Cousin was instructed to submit a note from her doctor clearing her to return to work and to inform her supervisor that she planned to return to work. When Ottley-Cousin spoke with her supervisor as instructed, the supervisor said that it was her understanding Ottley-Cousin no longer worked for MMC. The supervisor stated that she did not want Ottley-Cousin to return to MMC because Ottley-Cousin did not reach out to her directly to inform her that she was sick.
During Ottley-Cousin’s FMLA absence, there were discussions about letting her go due to job abandonment. Ultimately, the company determined that her supervisory role was no longer needed in the department and decided to eliminate the position due to “budgetary reasons.” Rather than terminate Ottley-Cousin’s employment, MMC reassigned her to a different department, with the same hours and salary despite a lower salary range in the new position, but with no supervisory authority.
Ottley-Cousin requested a second FMLA leave in September 2015, with a scheduled return-to-work date of October 13, 2015. The leave was approved, and she was declared “totally disabled” by her treating physician for October through December 2015. In October 2015, Ottley-Cousin moved in with her mother in Florida and enrolled her children in a Florida school. She did not return to work on October 13, 2015. After several unsuccessful attempts to reach Ottley-Cousin about her plan to return to work, MMC informed Ottley-Cousin in November 2015 that her employment was terminated for job abandonment.
Following her discharge, Ottley-Cousin sued for race discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. section 1981; retaliation in violation of the FMLA; and race discrimination, retaliation, and disability discrimination in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law. The district court granted summary judgment on Ottley-Cousin’s section 1981, New York City Human Rights Law claims, and FMLA retaliatory discharge claim, but denied summary judgment on her FMLA retaliatory transfer claim.
The Court’s Analysis
In arguing for summary judgment on Ottley-Cousin’s FMLA retaliation claims, MMC first argued that Ottley-Cousin did not exercise FMLA rights in October 2014 because she did not return back to work on the approved date and the company had no obligation to reinstate her to her prior position after her leave expired. The district court disagreed, finding that Ottley-Cousin exercised her FMLA rights when she requested and was granted leave in October 2014. While an employer may not be obligated to reinstate an employee after her FMLA leave expires, the district court noted that this does not preclude a finding that the employer was motivated by an unlawful purposes when it transferred or terminated her employment.
Next, MMC unsuccessfully argued there was no evidence of retaliatory intent, relying on testimony that the ultimate decision-maker never said anything negative about Ottley-Cousin’s disability or need for time off. The district court disagreed, pointing to Ottley-Cousin’s supervisor’s statements during her first FMLA leave that it was “unreal” that she was on leave, that she did not want her to return to work, and that she thought she no longer worked for the company. The district court also relied on the temporal proximity between Ottley-Cousin’s first FMLA leave and her transfer in holding that she established a prima facie case of retaliation. During the pretext analysis, the district court found a triable issue as to whether the proffered reason for transfer was pretextual, relying on (i) the fact that Ottley-Cousin’s position was the only position eliminated for “budgetary” concerns, (ii) the temporal proximity between her first FMLA leave and the transfer, and (iii) the comments made by Ottley-Cousin’s supervisor during her first FMLA leave.
By contrast, the district court granted MMC’s motion for summary judgment on Ottley-Cousin’s retaliatory discharge claims. In so holding, the court noted that Ottley-Cousin failed to return to work on the agreed upon date, moved out of state and enrolled her kids in school there, and failed to respond to communications about her plans to return to work.
The FMLA bestows reinstatement obligations on employers following the conclusion of FMLA leave. This decision highlights the importance of considering reinstatement obligations even after FMLA leave has expired and the perils of not reinstating an employee returning from FMLA leave to a position with similar responsibilities. The decision also emphasizes the importance of scrutinizing the elimination of a position when the employee who generally fills that position is on FMLA leave to ensure the elimination of that position is not merely a pretext for retaliation.