FMLA: Even a Mistaken Reason Is a Legal Reason for Termination

FMLA Mistake
FMLA: Even a mistaken reason for termination can be a permissible reason.

A recent case arising under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) reinforces the maxim that an employee can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all — so long as the reason does not violate federal protections.  See Neal v. T-Mobile, USA, Inc., No 16-16304, 2017 WL 270354 (11th Cir. Jun. 22, 2017).  In Neal, Latasha Neal took FMLA leave and was scheduled to return to work with T-Mobile on December 31, 2012.  Even though she exhausted her FMLA leave, T-Mobile extended her leave period to January 10, 2013.   Then, Ms. Neal negotiated a further extension with her district manager, Carl Graden, so that she was scheduled to return to work on January 22, 2013.  When she failed to return to work on that date, T-Mobile notified Ms. Neal that she had to submit a release-to-return-to-work from her physician by January 25, 2013.  If she failed to submit the release within that time, she would be deemed to voluntarily terminate her employment.

On January 25, 2013, Carl Graden called T-Mobile’s leave of absence team, which told him that Ms. Neal failed to submit the release form.  So, Graden terminated Ms. Neal’s employment.  In reality, Ms. Neal submitted the form, but it was mis-filed.  So, Graden’s reason for termination was mistaken.  Ms. Neal sued for FMLA retaliation.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal found that Ms. Neal’s termination was not retaliatory.  In particular, the Court relied upon Graden’s testimony that he did not know that Ms. Neal had submitted the return-to-work form, even though other T-Mobile employees did know.  This is simply re-enforces a previous blog post where I mentioned that ignorance of a decision-maker can sometimes be a good thing in discrimination actions:  Ignorance Can Be A Good Excuse

In a “fair” world, Mr. Graden would change his mind upon learning of the mis-filed form, and re-hire Ms. Neal.  But, the FMLA and other federal laws are not necessarily concerned with “fairness.”  Instead, so long as an employer makes employment decisions that are not based upon protected characteristics (like FMLA leave), then even unfair terminations are legal.