Employee Handbook Leads to Dismissal of FMLA Claims against Tennessee EmployerMost, if not all, employers provide their employees with handbooks that explain the policies and procedures that govern the employment relationship. Because this practice is standard, many employers likely forget how critical it is to have clear, well-known policies that are consistently followed. The recent decision in Everson v. SCI Tennessee Funeral Services, LLC reminds employers of the significance of employee handbooks and how they can prevent extensive litigation.

Background

Ommer Everson worked as a funeral director for SCI Tennessee Funeral Services (SCI). Although Everson was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease during his employment, it did not affect his work until he needed some time off for outpatient ear procedures. Before his procedure in 2010, Everson requested a week to 10 days off, which his supervisor granted. In 2014, Everson requested an afternoon off for another procedure and his supervisor again granted the request. On January 9, 2015, he requested a week off for a third procedure and his supervisor responded that it was fine—“whatever time you need.”

However, Everson never took that week off because he was terminated two days later for violating SCI’s refrigeration policy. Specifically, SCI determined that Everson left an unembalmed body overnight without refrigeration.

Everson sued SCI alleging violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Regarding the FMLA, Everson specifically alleged that SCI had retaliated against him for requesting FMLA leave and interfered with the exercise of his rights.

Middle District of Tennessee Grants Summary Judgment to SCI on FMLA Claims

SCI moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not interfere with Everson’s FMLA rights because Everson failed to follow SCI’s notice requirements in requesting leave. SCI’s employee handbook outlined the procedure—employees needing leave were to contact the SCI Leave and Disability Center. In response, Everson asserted that the FMLA did not require him to invoke the FMLA by name. Providing notice to his supervisor for a procedure related to Meniere’s disease was sufficient to notify SCI that Everson was invoking FMLA protection.

Siding with SCI, the Middle District of Tennessee granted summary judgment, holding that the 2009 amendment to 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(d) “explicitly permit[ted] employers to condition FMLA-protected leave upon an employee’s compliance with the employer’s usual notice and procedural requirements, absent unusual circumstances.” The court explained that despite the fact that Everson had received, read, and signed SCI’s employee handbook, he never requested FMLA leave or asked anyone at SCI for FMLA leave. He also did not identify any unusual circumstances that would have prevented him from complying with SCI’s notice requirement. Because Everson failed to comply with SCI’s policy for requesting FMLA leave, the court ruled that he could not establish a prima facie case for FMLA interference. Additionally, the court ruled that Everson’s claim of FMLA retaliation failed because his anticipated leave was not a protected activity under the FMLA. Since SCI did not have proper notice of Everson’s intent to take FMLA leave, Everson never actually engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA.

The court went on to deny summary judgment to SCI regarding Everson’s ADA claim, but that is a much longer story for a different post.

Takeaways

Never forget the power of the employee handbook and other well-crafted policies. In this case, the employer set out a clear path to request FMLA leave, and the court determined that the plaintiff did not use it. To get the most from those policies, you need to be sure that you can prove that your employees know about them. Here are some ideas:

  • Make sure that every employee receives a copy of your employee handbook and acknowledges in writing that they have both read the handbook and addressed any questions or concerns that they may have.
  • For policies regarding employment laws that may be more complex (g., requesting FMLA leave, requesting reasonable accommodations, requesting or reporting overtime, etc.), consider having employees read, acknowledge, and sign a separate document in addition to the handbook acknowledgement to ensure that they understand their responsibilities, as well as your responsibilities as their employer.
  • Send periodic messages or post reminders about more complicated policies—such as requesting FMLA leave or reporting harassment. This will give you another way to prove that employees understand how the policies work.

Two Guys Walk into a Wine Bar… Not a Joke as Another Court Recognizes Claim for Harassment Based on Sexual OrientationI have told clients for years that they ignore claims based on sexual orientation at their peril, and another court is backing me up. An Arizona federal district court just ordered a wine bar to pay real money ($100,000) to two servers based on claims about sexual orientation harassment and retaliation.

Curiously, this was a default judgment, so we have no idea what the employer’s side of this story is. With that caveat, two servers, Wyatt Lupton and Jared Bahnick, filed charges with the EEOC claiming that 5th & Wine allowed its management and employees to harass them because their actual or perceived sexual orientation. According to Lupton, he was fired after he said he planned on taking legal action. The EEOC found cause and ultimately filed a lawsuit on their behalf. The company did not answer, and the EEOC obtained a default judgment—money for Lupton and Bahnick, as well as injunctive relief.

Regardless of what actually happened at this wine bar, employers should be careful when confronted with claims of discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or transgender status. Even though Congress has not added these as protected categories under Title VII, many courts are treating them as covered. In light of that trend, cautious employers should consider the following:

  • If an employee reports that he or she is being harassed because of sexual orientation or transgender status, treat it like you would any other harassment complaint.
  • Consider revising EEO and harassment policies to explicitly include sexual orientation and transgender status as protected categories.
  • Make sure supervisors and managers understand that ignoring these issues could land the company in court.

Employers beware: An employee does not have to use “magic words” to complain about discrimination for it to lay the basis for a retaliation claim. The Sixth Circuit made this point in a unanimous opinion in the case of Mumm v. Charter Township of Superior.

Sixth Circuit to Employers: No ‘Magic Words’ Make a Sex Discrimination Complaint Title VII Protected ActivityFacts

Susan Mumm complained to her employer, the Township, about being disciplined for performance-related reasons (she was an accountant, among other duties). After the Township addressed her complaint, Mumm’s supervisor, Ken Schwartz, asked her to withdraw the complaint.

During a subsequent meeting, Mumm stated she would withdraw her complaint only if the Township granted her an immediate pay raise of $10,000 because she was “tired of being underpaid for all these years in relation to Keith Lockie.” Lockie (male) was another Township accountant. Mumm also claims she informed her supervisor that she had consulted a labor attorney, and she intended to file a lawsuit if the Township did not address “the pay discrimination between Keith and me.”

The Township subsequently fired Mumm because it had “lost trust” in her after the meeting, which the Township considered to be the “last straw” in a number of inappropriate actions. True to her word, Mumm filed a lawsuit alleging multiple claims, including a retaliation claim under Title VII. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for engaging in Title VII-protected activity. The district court granted summary judgment to the Township on all of Mumm’s claims, holding Mumm’s complaint did not constitute Title VII-protected activity. Mumm appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

What the Sixth Circuit Said on Appeal

The Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court. The court held that Mumm’s threat to sue was clear enough to be protected activity and the Township “should have known Mumm was charging the Township with sex discrimination.” The Sixth Circuit sent the case back to the district court for a jury trial.

In reversing summary judgment, the Sixth Circuit found that even though Mumm did not say “sex discrimination” or make clear she believed gender explained the pay difference between her and Lockie, the Township officials knew Lockie was male, knew he occupied a similar position, and knew that he (like Mumm) was an at-will, non-unionized employee.

“Mumm pointed to a specific practice she believed to be unlawful (the pay disparity between her and Lockie) and threatened to sue if the Township did not correct it. . . .It makes no difference that Mumm did not utter the magic words ‘sex discrimination.’”

The Sixth Circuit also held that a reasonable jury could find the Township’s reasons for Mumm’s discharge were pretextual.

Takeaways

This case is a good lesson for employers dealing with employees who raise complaints.

  • Don’t be picky when determining whether an employee has complained about discrimination. As the Sixth Circuit found, an employee does not have to use certain “magic words” to engage in protected activity. If it is a close call, treat it like a discrimination complaint.
  • If an employee complains about something you think could be about discrimination (even if the employee did not expressly say it), treat it accordingly. Investigate that complaint.
  • Don’t retaliate against an employee for bringing it up. You can address issues, discipline if necessary, etc., but don’t base a decision on the fact that the employee complained. Otherwise, you may have to be explaining yourself to a jury.