Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rules in Employee’s Favor in FMLA Discrimination Claim

Employment statutes often use broad language that leaves much open to interpretation. The federal and state agencies charged with administering and enforcing these statutes develop their own interpretations of the statutes, which may or may not match the interpretations of the court system. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that courts must defer to agencies’ interpretations of the statutes that they administer, provided that those interpretations do not exceed the agencies’ legal authority. This is known as the “Chevron doctrine,” after the court’s decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). The Third Circuit based a recent decision, which involved a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) discrimination claim, on Chevron. Egan v. Delaware River Port Authority, No. 16-1471, slip op. (3rd Cir., Mar. 21, 2017).

The FMLA requires covered employers to provide unpaid leave to qualifying employees for specific medical- and family-related reasons. The statute is heavy on qualifications regarding which employers are covered, how and when employees qualify for leave, and which situations provide a valid basis for requesting leave. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has promulgated additional rules and procedures for determining who is entitled to leave. See 29 U.S.C. § 2611 et seq., 29 C.F.R. Part 825. Employers cannot interfere with the rights guaranteed by the FMLA, and they may be liable to aggrieved employees for damages if they do. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2615, 2617.

In the context of employment litigation, the Chevron doctrine comes into play with regard to rules promulgated by agencies like the WHD to help identify statutory violations. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997). The regulation at issue in Egan involved the evidence required to prove discrimination and retaliation under the FMLA. The WHD has interpreted the statute as prohibiting employers from “us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c). The question before the Third Circuit involved whether the plaintiff had to prove that his FMLA leave directly resulted in an adverse employment action.

The plaintiff in Egan worked for the defendant from 2008 to 2012. He had reportedly suffered from migraines ever since an accident in 1995. He claimed that a transfer to a new department in early 2012 caused his migraine symptoms to worsen. The defendant approved his request for FMLA leave, but the plaintiff alleged that his supervisors soon began to retaliate against him. He was terminated in late 2012.

The lawsuit alleges “mixed-motive” discrimination, meaning that the defendant had “both legitimate and illegitimate reasons” for its adverse actions against the plaintiff. Egan, slip op. at 7, n. 1, quoting Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016). According to WHD rules, this requires evidence that the plaintiff’s FMLA leave was a “negative factor” but not necessarily that it was the primary determinative factor. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s FMLA claim, holding that the plaintiff needed to produce more direct evidence. The Third Circuit vacated this ruling, citing the WHD rule and Chevron.

To speak with an FMLA attorney about a case in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group today online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

New Laws, Regulations Regarding Employee Sick Leave Set to Take Effect in New Jersey, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, November 11, 2016

New Jersey Judge Awards Attorney’s Fees and Costs to Plaintiff in Medical Leave Lawsuit, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, September 4, 2015

Employer Lays Off Worker After Learning About Cancer Diagnosis, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, December 10, 2014

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