Second Circuit Lowers Bar for FMLA Retaliation Claims

Back on July 19, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit lowered the causation standard that an employee has to meet in order to bring a retaliation claim against an employer under the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). The Second Circuit explained that FMLA retaliation claims should be analyzed through a “motivating factor” causation standard as opposed to a “but for” causation standard. With the usage of this standard, all an employee has to do in order to bring a viable claim for retaliation against an employer in the Second Circuit is to simply prove that their employer, in correlation with an adverse employment action, viewed an employee’s utilization of the FMLA, in a negative light. The Second Circuit now joins the Third Circuit in using this causation standard.

The Second Circuit expressed its intent to adopt this plaintiff-friendly causation standard going forward in the case, Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, Inc. This case involved plaintiff Cassandra Woods, who was employed as a substance abuse counselor for START, a nonprofit and one of the largest non-hospital health providers in New York state, from 2007 until she was fired in 2012. Starting in 2011, Woods found herself at the center of much criticism at work as she received multiple warnings regarding her poor performance and was placed on probation eventually because of it. Over the course of this time, Woods was dealing with numerous health problems including severe anemia. Woods alleges that she had requested time off under the FMLA to deal with these detrimental health conditions on multiple occasions over the course of her employment with START but was always denied this requested leave. Woods was eventually hospitalized for a week as a result of her condition in April of 2012; a period that START admitted was protected under the FMLA. Woods was terminated shortly after her return from the hospital due to what START claimed was because of her alleged incompetent work performance.

Going forward, it will be much less burdensome for employees within the Second Circuit, which consists of those in Connecticut, New York and Vermont, to succeed on FMLA retaliation claims. So long as a plaintiff is able to show that the usage of his or her FMLA rights was merely part of the reason their employer took an adverse employment action against them. Additionally, the adoption of this standard by the Second Circuit will also likely result in an uptick in the amount of FMLA retaliation cases that get past summary judgment and proceed to trial. Employers within the Second Circuit will now have to be more careful when terminating employees because although they may have legitimate business reasons for terminating an employee, they still may find themselves in legal trouble if it can be shown that they viewed an employee’s usage of FMLA provided leave as a motivating factor in making the decision to terminate them.

Should you have questions regarding FMLA and/or FMLA retaliation, call Gilbert Law Group today at (631) 630-0100.

Contributed by: Richard (RJ) Cherpak

Spanish Speaking Employees Bring Lawsuit Over English-only Rule At Work

Can an employer require its employees to speak only English at work? That question will be answered in a lawsuit brought against Delta Airlines by a group of Spanish speaking airplane cabin cleaners. The employees claim that a shift manager barred workers from speaking Spanish after a company, Gate Gourmet, took over the contract to clean Delta’s planes at Los Angeles International Airport. Most of the 14 employees speak little to no English but had been performing their jobs for years.

According to the national counsel for the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund which is representing the plaintiffs, “They’re essentially muted. They’ve got to walk around with their mouth shut. So it is humiliating and denigrating, and it makes it harder for them to do their job.” Gate Gourmet said that the comppany does not have an English-only rule. Under California law, employers can require employees to speak English only if there is a legitimate business reason.

The court complaint alleges that employees must rapidly clean airplane cabins and restock supplies before passengers board the planes. They communicate over radio regarding when and where they need to go. The employer did not warn employees what penalty would be imposed if they violated the language rule. The company may have difficulty in defending the case as it appears that the shift policy is only applied to workers on the evening shift. Morning and night crews continue to speak in Spanish, according to the complaint.

The employees assert that they complained to the human resources department but received no answer. The action seeks to require Gate Gourmet to withdraw the rule and pay damages and attorneys’ fees.

If you have any issues with a claim, potential claim, or questions regarding the issues raised by this lawsuit or other workplace policies, please calll the Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

 

 

Can An Employee be Fired for Marijuana Use?

With marijuana use becoming legal in an increasing number of states, the courts will become the battleground for deciding whether an employee may be fired for marijuana use. In fact, Colorado’s highest court will decide that very issue in a state where both medicinal and recreational marijuana use have been legalized. The issue: whether a workers’ off-duty, off work-site use of medical marijuana is protected by law. The facts: Brandon Coats is a quadraplegic medical marijuana patient who was terminated from Dish Network after failing a drug test in 2010. Coats never got high at work, but pot’s intoxicating chemical, THC, can stay in the system for weeks. The employer claims that it has a zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policy, and it is therefore irrelevant if Coats was impaired at work.

Coats, 35, was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager. In 2009, he found that pot helped dissipate violent muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone operator for Dish for three years before he failed a random drug test. He told his supervisors in advance that he would probably fail the test. The lower courts upheld the firing, holding that pot use cannot be considered lawful so long as it violates federal law.

Aside from the narrow issue of state law, there are several important issues in this case. Colorado, like New York and several other states, has a Legal Activities Law which prevents employers from discriminating against employees who engage in off-duty, off work-site activities which are legal. New York also recently made legal the medicinal use of marijuana under certain conditions. Also, under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as New York’s Human Rights Law, Dish’s termination of Coats may constitute unlawful disability discrimination based on his disability.  There is also the issue of reasonable accommodation of Coats’ disability.

It would appear that where workers are employed in nonhazardous jobs, unless there is some negative impact in the workplace, an employee’s marijuana use may not serve as a basis for discharge. Negative impacts may include smoking or ingesting at work, impairment or being ‘hung over’ at work, poor performance linked to the use, or time and attendance issues.

Also, if the employer receives federal funding, condoning known pot use may jeopardize a federal subsidized project, contract, continued receipt of federal funds, or status as a federal agency employer inasmuch as federal law still prohibits pot use.

This case clearly has nationwide implications as it will impact how companies and other employers treat employees who use the drug both medically and recreationally. It will therefore be interesting to see how Colorado’s Supreme Court rules. Stay tuned.

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