Kmart Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Wins Family and Medical Leave Act Appeal
You would think most employers know that you’re not supposed to fire someone because they take a medical leave of absence – but it looks like K-Mart may have missed the boat.
A sales clerk at one of its Michigan stores who lost her job for taking time off after surgery will get her jury trial on a Family and Medical Leave Act retaliation claim according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion last week in Cutcher v Kmart Corporation.
Here’s what happened in the case.
Susan Cutcher worked as a full-time hourly sales clerk at Kmart for many years. (Kmart calls these employees “associates”) Her performance evaluations were good to excellent.
In 2002, she received an overall rating of “exceptional,” the second highest rating available that year. In 2003, she again received a rating of “exceptional,” the highest possible rating in that year’s appraisal.
In 2004, her rating dropped from “exceptional” to “exceeds expectations,” the second highest rating possible. In 2005, she again received an overall rating of “exceeds expectations.”
The 2005 review noted: “Susan usually is able to provide good, friendly, customer service, her work is usually very well done—and accurate.”
In early November 2005, Cutcher learned that she needed surgery. Her doctor indicated that she required six weeks off work after surgery and signed the necessary forms which Cutcher then submitted.
In December of 2005, while Cutcher was on leave, Kmart announced a nationwide reduction in force (“RIF”). The Port Huron Michigan store, like others, was required to cut a number of associate positions.
Each store received guidelines as to how it would go about making the cuts. The guidelines included an “Associate Performance Recap Form” which included :
• the same four performance categories as the annual evaluations: customer service, teamwork, demonstrated work habits, and effectiveness in position
• consideration of the employee’s most recent annual appraisal rating in calculating an employee’s score
• a requirement that the stores provide an explanation in the comments section — along with documentation — of a significant change in the employee’s score when compared to their annual appraisals
• a statement that those on a LOA (leave of absence) should be included in the selection process but that the fact of a LOA should not be considered as a rating factor
When Cutcher was evaluated for the RIF, she received lower ratings than she received in the last performance appraisal for the same categories. In addition, the following comment appeared next to her name: “Poor customer and associate relations. LOA.”
The last evaluation was just twenty days earlier, and no performance issue occurred in the interim, nor was there any documentation to substantiate a lower rating. The only employment event regarding Cutcher was her leave of absence.
The negative evaluation and low scores caused Cutcher to be selected for termination. Had she been evaluated consistently with her last evaluation of November 15, 2005 –just twenty days earlier — her ranking would have been high enough to avoid the RIF.
When Cutcher returned from medical leave to active status on January 23, 2006, she was greeted with a pink slip. Her position was not eliminated. It was given to another employee.
Cutcher filed a lawsuit in federal court against Kmart claiming that Kmart violated the FMLA by interfering with her FMLA leave and retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave.
The District Court Finds For Kmart
Under the FMLA, an eligible employee:
• may take twelve week s of unpaid leave in certain situations, including a serious medical condition
• is entitled to return to his or her position or to an equivalent position held by the employee when the leave commenced
An employer may not:
• interfere with, retrain or deny the exercise of or attempt to exercise any FMLA right 29 U.S.C. S.2615(a)(1)
• retaliate against an employee for invoking his or her right to take FMLA 29 U.S.C. S.2615 (a)(2)
Kmart argued that it would have fired Cutcher even if she had not been on FMLA leave. The district court agreed and threw out the case on summary judgment. Cutcher appealed.
The Sixth Circuit Court Of Appeals Reverses
The FMLA Interference Claim
Cutcher argued both in the district and the Court of Appeals that a jury question was created as to whether she would have been fired had she not take FMLA leave because of:
• Kmart’s post-hoc rationalization of their lower RIF appraisal score, in light of the fact that there had been no prior documented complaints against her, and
• the “LOA” notation written n the comment section of the Asssociate Performance Recap Form
The Sixth Circuit agreed:
Given Cutcher’s prior annual appraisal score, the minimal amount of time that passed between her most recent annual appraisal and the RIF appraisal, Kmart’s admission that Cutcher’s performance did not change during that short period of time, the inclusion of the ‘LOA” notation on the Associate performance Recap Form, and the lack of any documented evidence demonstrating a prior concern with her job performance, a jury could infer that her leave status impacted her RIF appraisal ratings, thus leading to her termination.
The FMLA Retaliation Claim
A FMLA retaliation claim requires a plaintiff to establish that:
• she was engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA
• she suffered an adverse employment action
• there was a causal connection between her protected FMLA activity and the adverse employment action
If this showing is made, the burden shifts to the employer to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer does this, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the employer’s reason is pretextual – in other words, not true or not worthy of belief.
Cutcher argued, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that the same evidence which supported the connection between her FMLA leave and the termination demonstrated that Kmart’s proffered legitimate reason for firing her was pretextual.
Specifically, the following facts show pretext: the temporal proximity between her leave and the termination; the lack of documentation to corroborate her lower RIF appraisal scores; the lack of temporal proximity between the events that Kmart alleges justified her lower RIF appraisal scores and her termination; her documented favorable work history; the discrepancy between her prior annual appraisal an her RIF appraisal, and the “LOA” notation next to Cutcher’s name in the Impacted Associates Form.
The district court rejected these proffered reasons, but Cutcher has produced sufficient evidence – listed above – from which a jury could conclude that Kmart used the RIF as a means of terminating her. ……
Although she has not presented direct evidence to support that argument, the circumstantial evidence creates a question of material fact for the jury.
For the reasons stated above, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court ….
There are two things that strike me about this case.
For one, it is hard for me to imagine that someone at Kmart who had some understanding of employment law didn’t realize that firing someone on medical leave — who consistently had very good employment evaluation — might create a legal problem (or perhaps they just didn’t care for one reason or another).
Two, although I have seen this so many times I couldn’t begin to count, it still angers me when a district court embraces the employers version of the evidence, completely discounts the employees evidence including any inferences which may be drawn from it, and grants judgment in favor of the company.
Even though the Supreme Court sent a crystal clear message in the Reeves v Sanderson Plumbing case (10 years ago ) that weighing of evidence by the district court is wrong and juries are supposed to decide these cases — not the federal judges or their law clerks — this pernicious anti-employee summary judgment practice stubbornly persists.
*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on February 8, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.
*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome