FMLA Retaliation Case Illustrates the Practical Significance of Effective HR Documentation
In Simpson v. Temple University, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiff’s claims of interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The decision illustrates the practical significance of documenting performance issues and termination decisions as soon as possible. Such a practice can help employers reduce the risk of liability for retaliation under the FMLA.
The plaintiff, Delwanna Simpson, worked as the assistant director of maintenance and operations at Temple University for five years before Temple University terminated her employment. Throughout her tenure, Simpson received periodic warnings from her supervisor, T.J. Logan, and others about her need to adopt a more supportive leadership style toward her subordinates. After issuing several such warnings, Logan learned of a verbal altercation between Simpson and a coworker in December 2017. He investigated the incident and decided to terminate Simpson’s employment on January 19, 2018. The same day, Logan memorialized his decision in an email to the university’s human resources department, detailing his reasoning. He did not immediately notify Simpson of his decision because he had to complete the university’s employment termination process with human resources, but he did tell Simpson on January 19, 2018, that he had lost faith in her ability to be a supervisor.
On January 22, 2018, Simpson was admitted to the emergency room for severe abdominal pain and nausea. After being released the following morning, she emailed human resources to obtain medical leave under the FMLA. She did not return to work. On January 26, 2018—still unaware that Simpson had requested medical leave—Logan emailed Simpson her employment termination paperwork. Simpson later sued Temple University and Logan claiming FMLA retaliation.
The Court’s Analysis
To state a claim for FMLA retaliation, Simpson had to “show that (1) she invoked her right to FMLA-qualifying leave, (2) she suffered an adverse employment decision, and (3) the adverse action was causally related to her invocation of [FMLA] rights.” The district court focused on the third element, finding that “nothing in the record [was] sufficient to establish that [Simpson’s] invocation of FMLA rights was causally related to her termination.” Logan’s decision to terminate Simpson’s employment and his submission of the formal paperwork to implement the discharge were made before Simpson invoked her rights under the FMLA and before Logan knew she had applied for medical leave. Thus, because of the sequence of events, Simpson could not establish the required causality between the adverse employment action and her invocation of FMLA rights. The court noted that employers do not have an “obligation to revisit or revoke” an employment termination decision because of an employee’s subsequent request for FMLA leave.
The court’s decision highlights why it can be useful for an employer to document promptly its reasoning for taking an adverse employment action, even if the employee is not immediately notified of the decision. Such documentation can, as it did in this case, demonstrate that the adverse action was not causally related to the employee’s later request for medical leave. Here, had Logan delayed just a few days in sending his email to human resources—or not sent it at all—Simpson, arguably, might have been better able to show causality.
Because the employer contemporaneously documented the decision to terminate Simpson’s employment and the basis for doing so, the defendants prevailed. Employers may want to document performance issues and employment termination decisions expeditiously to reduce the risk of liability under the FMLA.