Welder’s FMLA Retaliation Case Fails Due to Lack of Proof that Leave Request Triggered Termination

Winning a claim for illegal retaliation against an employee’s request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act requires several types of proof. One essential ingredient is evidence showing that the employee’s request for leave was (in whole or in part) the cause for his termination. A welding technician’s case fell short because the people he told about his leave request were not among the people who made the decision to terminate his employment, leading the trial court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide that his case lacked this vital proof of a link of causation.

Ed Rudy had worked as a ceramic welding technician for Walter Coke, Inc., a manufacturer of coke used in blast furnaces and foundries, since 2000. In 2009, he missed several months of work due to a back injury. In the summer of 2010, he hurt his back again while moving a 55-pound bag of silica powder. Rudy sought medical attention and was scheduled for a diagnostic imaging procedure in late September. After undergoing the procedure, Rudy told his immediate supervisor that the results were poor and that he would need back surgery.

Shortly before the employee underwent his imaging procedure, a co-worker discovered a piece of wool in his welding machine. Rudy later admitted to placing the item in the machine as a prank. Based upon the employee’s actions, which constituted a violation of the company’s safety policies punishable by termination, the general manager of Rudy’s division decided to fire the employee. The vice president of Walter’s operations agreed with that decision.

Rudy sued his employer, accusing it of violating the FMLA. In his suit, he claimed that Walter fired him as a result of his request for FMLA leave to recuperate after his back surgery. The worker lost in the trial court. The first thing that must happen in a worker’s FMLA retaliation case is that the worker must make a request for FMLA leave. The trial court ruled that, when Rudy told his supervisor about the test results and the surgery recommendation, this action potentially qualified as a request for benefits under the FMLA.

However, the law also requires an injured worker to show that the request for benefits caused the termination. Rudy’s case could not support that conclusion because the people who decided to terminate him (the general manager and the vice president) were not among the people who knew about the employee’s impending surgery and need for time off from work.

On appeal, Rudy again lost. The appeals court explained that employees can win cases like the one Rudy presented if the employee can show that “the decisionmaker was aware of the protected conduct at the time” of the termination. In FMLA cases, “other supervisors’ knowledge that the plaintiff engaged in protected conduct may not be imputed to the decisionmaker.” This was the fatal shortcoming in Rudy’s case. While the employee had proof he told his direct supervisor about his need for leave, he had no evidence (beyond his own unsupported speculation) that the general manager or the vice president knew about the upcoming surgery or Rudy’s need for leave when they made the decision to terminate his employment.

Whether you are a Georgia employer or employee, the knowledgeable Georgia wrongful termination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert can provide you with reliable advice and thoughtful solutions to your questions about FMLA leave and FMLA retaliation. Our attorneys have helped many clients just like you with their FMLA matters.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Employee Can Use Information Submitted Post-Termination to Prove Part of FMLA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 19, 2015

Eleventh Circuit Decides Employer Lacked Knowledge of Employee’s Disability, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 5, 2015

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