Jury can find Culinary Institute of America violated FMLA in terminating woman who cared for sick kids

This FMLA case provides some guidance on the interference clause under this statute, which allows employees 120 days of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member. At this link, I wrote about the individual liability portion of the ruling. This time around, I write about the interference portion.

The case is Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, decided on March 17. Plaintiff needed leave for two reasons. One son, Vincent, was hospitalized with diabetes, Another son, DJ, broke his leg. After she took leave, plaintiff and management went around and around on when she could return and what paperwork she had to file to maintain that leave. She was eventually fired for abandoning her job. Taking up the issue of what constitutes interference for the first time, the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Lohier and Lynch) lays out the standard:

to prevail on a claim of interference with her FMLA rights, a plaintiff must establish: 1) that she is an eligible employee under the FMLA; 2) that the defendant is an employer as defined by the FMLA; 3) that she was entitled to take leave under the FMLA; 4) that she gave notice to the defendant of her intention to take leave; and 5) that she was denied benefits to which she was entitled under the FMLA. Plaintiff has claim for the FMLA leaves for both sons.

As for Vincent, while plaintiff did take initial leave and was allowed to return to work, the jury could find that she tried to take intermittent leave afterwards and that her leave was not approved. It was during this intermittent leave period that CIA was dragging its feet and giving plaintiff a hard time about whether she had submitted the right paperwork under the FMLA. The Second Circuit also finds that plaintiff was entitled to this leave. While CIA questioned whether plaintiff submitted the proper FMLA form, she timely tried to cure any deficiencies by sending a new certification that outlined Vincent's medical schedule. The jury could find this form was enough to meet the certification requirements under the statute. In sum, plaintiff can win her case with respect to the Vincent-related leave.

Plaintiff can also win the case on her DJ-related leave. The jury could find she tried in good faith to comply with CIA's certification requests and that defendant's conduct excused any residual failure in compliance. When CIA asked plaintiff for medical certification as to DJ, that request was vague and did not give her adequate notice that CIA wanted medical certification. The letter also misstated the deadline for plaintiff to comply with the request. She then tried to restate and clarify her request for certification fairly quickly. The process got so convoluted along the way that, really, your eyes may glaze over while reading about it. The Court says:

Under these circumstances, a jury could conclude that Graziadio made sufficient 2 good faith efforts to comply with her employer’s requests and that defendants’ conduct — their imprecision in requesting certification, their failure to answer Graziadio’s questions responsively, and their failure to communicate with Graziadio after deeming her doctor’s note deficient—relieved Graziadio of any unsatisfied obligation to provide a medical certification to support her leave. Freed of this obligation, Graziadio may well have been entitled to leave to care for T.J. and may, therefore, be able to show that defendants interfered with that leave.

This evidence also supports plaintiff's retaliation claim under the FMLA. CIA said plaintiff abandoned her position. But plaintiff can show that excuse is implausible. CIA told her to contact her supervisor to arrange to return to work, but in that same missive, she was told that if she wants to return to work, she must submit proper FMLA medical certifications. "Given that, for the preceding two months, [supervisor] Garrioch had refused to allow Graziadio to return to work until she submitted new paperwork, it would have been reasonable for Graziadio to read this email as taking the same position: i.e., in order to return to work, you must submit appropriate paperwork and, presumably in or after doing so, you must contact your supervisor." The Second Circuit proceeds to cut through CIA's reasoning in terminating plaintiff, finding its excuses "difficult, to put it mildly, to accept defendants' argument" in one area. Another CIA argument, the Court says, is "hard to believe."