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Ninth Circuit Court Holds Employer, Not Employee, Must Prove Reasons for Not Reinstating Employee After Taking FMLA Leave

Volume 10, Issue 4
April 29, 2011

The Ninth Circuit Court in Sanders v. City of Newport clarified how Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) "interference" claims are to be evaluated, holding that an employee does not need to prove her employer lacked reasonable cause when it denied her reinstatement. Rather, the employee only needs to show she was entitled to FMLA benefits and her employer denied the same. It is up to the employer to prove the employee would have been terminated even if FMLA leave was not taken.

The case involved a utility billing clerk, Diane Sanders, who began to experience health problems after her employer, the City of Newport, moved her office to a new location and started using lower-grade billing paper. Sanders was diagnosed as suffering from "multiple chemical sensitivity." She requested and received one month of FMLA leave to see if her health would improve if she were not exposed to the chemicals in her office, which was extended due to an unrelated medical condition. Thereafter, Sanders' doctor faxed a letter to the City stating that Sanders could return to work so long as she avoided the use of the low-grade billing paper. However, the City declined to reinstate Sanders on the basis that it could not guarantee her a safe workplace given her sensitivity to chemicals and the lack of knowledge of the particular chemicals or concentrations that may cause a reaction. Sanders subsequently filed a lawsuit asserting violations of the FMLA and other state and federal laws. When her FMLA claim was presented to a jury, the court required Sanders to prove that her employer denied reinstatement and discharged her without "reasonable cause" after she took FMLA leave. The jury found in favor of the City as to her FMLA claim.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court decided Sanders was entitled to a new trial as the court incorrectly required her to prove, as an element of her FMLA claim, that the City did not have "reasonable cause" to deny reinstatement and to terminate her employment. The court explained that there are two theories used to recover under the FMLA, one for the unlawful interference, restraint or denial of the exercise of the substantive rights under the FMLA and one for discrimination against an individual opposing any practice made unlawful under the FMLA. With respect to FMLA "interference" claims, the court stated the elements of an employee's threshold case consist of: (1) the employee was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) the employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) the employee was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) the employee provided sufficient notice of his/her intent to take leave; and (5) the employer denied the employee FMLA benefits to which he/she was entitled. Further, while recognizing that the FMLA regulations set forth limitations on an employee's right to reinstatement to her same or equivalent job, such as when an employee is unable to perform the essential functions of her job because of a physical or mental condition, the court held it is the responsibility of the employer to prove, not the responsibility of the employee to disprove, the existence of such legitimate reasons justifying the same.

The Sanders case makes it easier for employees to litigate FMLA interference cases because it clarifies that an employee is not required to show that her employer acted without "reasonable cause" when it denies reinstatement following FMLA leave. Rather, an employer who denies an employee reinstatement has the ultimate burden of proving that it took such action for legitimate reasons. This additional legal burden further increases the need for FMLA-covered employers to utilize well trained human resources personnel and legal counsel to assess the strength of the evidence supporting a denial of reinstatement following FMLA leave and to document the related decision making process.

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.