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How a single line in an email can impact a lawsuit

| Apr 28, 2017 | FMLA

 

When dealing with FMLA claims, written records can provide vital evidence

 

Most employer/employee relationships are at-will, meaning that either party can end the relationship for any reason, so long as that reason is not specifically prohibited by law. If the reason is discriminatory in some form, however, then the adverse action against the employee can lead to legal liability.

The Family and Medical Leave Act prohibits the termination of an employee who qualifies for a medical leave of absence under the FMLA. That law was the subject of an interesting decision out of Alabama involving an employee in the banking industry. In the case, a former employee sued her previous employer, Wells Fargo, for terminating her in violation of the FMLA after she was dismissed shortly after taking leave.

 

Defenses to FMLA retaliation claims

 

Wells Fargo argued to have the claim dismissed, stating that it had legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for terminating the employee. As evidence, it submitted performance reviews and other documented evidence that the employee underperformed at her job.

 

However, shortly after she returned to work, the employee’s manager sent an email to human resources outlining the reasons for termination. While the email largely dealt with performance, the manager included a line referencing the employee’s recent leave as part of the reason for termination.

 

Because it was specifically mentioned in an email, the district court refused to grant summary judgment for Wells Fargo. It held that the email amounted to direct evidence, which meant that a jury would need to determine whether Wells Fargo violated the FMLAs provisions that prohibit a retaliatory discharge for taking leave. Absent that single line, the outcome of the motion to dismiss the case may have been different.

Takeaways

Often, lawsuits alleging retaliation or other employment claims hinge on email communication and indirect evidence. Businesses looking to avoid legal liability should be sure to train managers and others responsible for termination decisions to only discuss performance issues regarding termination. Conversely, employees who believe they have experienced wrongful termination or discrimination in the workplace should be sure to document all direct and indirect evidence related to the adverse action.

 

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