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Employee can’t bring FMLA interference claim

An employee who would have been lawfully terminated had they not taken leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act cannot prove that their employer interfered with their FMLA rights by not reinstating them, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The decision was issued in the case of Byrd v. Clay County, Texas, which involves the Clay County sheriff’s office.

In 2020, when a new Clay County sheriff took office, he chose to replace several supervisors, one of which was the plaintiff, Linda Byrd. He informed the supervisors in individual emails that they would be terminated in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the plaintiff requested FMLA leave from the county. A county representative granted her request a few days prior to the day she was supposed to be terminated. After her FMLA leave ended a month later, she was not reinstated. She later alleged that she never saw the termination email from the sheriff.

The plaintiff sued the county under the FMLA, arguing that the county should have offered her employment at the conclusion of her leave.

A U.S. District Court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff couldn’t sue. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

“Under the FMLA, employees may not claim ‘any right, benefit or position of employment’ that they would not ‘have been entitled [to] had the employee not taken the leave,’” the court said. “The record makes indisputably clear that had Byrd not taken leave, she would have been terminated. … [W]hen a plaintiff’s position ‘would have been lawfully terminated had she not taken leave,’ she cannot prove an FMLA interference claim.”

In other words, “[e]mployees cannot immunize themselves from legitimate termination by taking FMLA leave.”

The court said its ruling was based on the fact that the plaintiff’s job was ending, and it didn’t make a difference that she didn’t know that before applying for FMLA leave.

The 5th Circuit cited its 2020 decision in Amedee v. Shell Chemical Co., which said that an employer that terminated an employee while on FMLA leave did not violate the Act. In that case, the employee was fired for repeated attendance violations before she took leave.

In March 2022, the 7th Circuit also addressed the issue. That court found that a mortgage lender didn’t interfere with an employee’s FMLA rights when it terminated her days after she returned from leave. An investigation in that case illuminated the employee’s history of performance problems, so the court said her termination was not related to taking FMLA leave.