Jury Must Decide FMLA Damages for Fired Employee

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By Jay-Anne Casuga

Aug. 10 — A jury must determine the amount of damages a Minnesota property management firm may owe to a former caretaker who prevailed on her Family and Medical Leave Act claims against the company after being fired while pregnant, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Aug. 10.

Affirming summary judgment to Ena Wages, the Eighth Circuit found that Wages established that Stuart Management Corp. interfered with her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for exercising those rights by firing her three days after she submitted a doctor's note limiting to her to no more than 20 work hours per week because of her pregnancy.

However, the appeals court vacated and remanded a $161,000 award to Wages, concluding that factual disputes exist regarding damages. For example, it said, a jury must determine whether Wages mitigated her damages following her termination and whether StuartCo acted in bad faith to justify an award of liquidated damages.

Judge Michael J. Melloy wrote the opinion, joined by Judges William J. Riley and Diana E. Murphy.

Worker Fired After Requesting Work Reduction

According to the court, Wages began working for the company on Nov. 17, 2008. She learned she had a high-risk pregnancy the following summer.

When she began experiencing abdominal pain in October 2009, her doctor restricted her ability to perform certain job duties, including vacuuming, mopping and snow removal. Wages continued to have abdominal pain, prompting her doctor to write a Nov. 12 note limiting her work hours to 20 per week or less.

Wages submitted the note to her supervisor Nov. 13, and officials decided to terminate her the same day. When Wages returned to work Nov. 16, officials notified her of her discharge, stating that the company couldn't accommodate her work restrictions.

Wages brought a number of claims against StuartCo, including FMLA interference and retaliation.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota granted summary judgment to Wages on the FMLA claims and awarded her approximately $161,000 in back pay, prejudgment interest, liquidated damages and post-judgment interest. StuartCo appealed.

Appeals Court Affirms Judgment to Worker

Affirming the ruling in favor of Wages, the Eighth Circuit held that Wages showed she was entitled to FMLA leave, gave StuartCo adequate notice of her need for FMLA leave, and the company interfered with her statutory leave rights.

The court rejected the company's argument that Wages wasn't entitled to FMLA leave because she hadn't worked a full 12 months. The court pointed to evidence that Wages's start date was Nov. 17, 2008, and that her termination letter was dated Nov. 16, 2009. As such, it said she met the FMLA's 12-month work requirement.

The appeals court also ruled that Wages's November 2009 doctor's note with the 20-hour-per-week restriction constituted adequate FMLA notice as it referenced her pregnancy and her need for leave.

Additionally, the court said Wages showed a causal link between her protected activity and adverse employment action to prevail on an FMLA retaliation claim.

“StuartCo has pointed to no evidence to demonstrate Wages would have been fired based on her initial restrictions alone,” the court said. “Rather, StuartCo’s decision to fire Wages was directly connected to her request for a reduction in hours, which is protected under the FMLA.”

Court Remands Damages Issue to Jury

However, the Eighth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court's damages award for further jury consideration.

“There are factual disputes that should have prevented the district court from determining damages,” the appeals court said. “For example, a jury should have [determined] whether Wages mitigated damages (and to what extent) and whether StuartCo acted in bad faith.”

Gender Justice represented Wages. Littler Mendelson represented StuartCo.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jay-Anne Casuga in Washington at jcasuga@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com.

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/ Ena_J_Wages_Plaintiff__Appellee_v_ Stuart_Management_Corporation_d.