Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Mar 12, 2014

Court rejects FMLA interference claim of employee who mentioned a “kill list”

 

An employer didn’t violate the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it fired an employee on FMLA leave who had told a coworker that her husband had a “kill list” with her supervisor’s name on it, ruled a federal district court.

An employer didn’t violate the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it fired an employee on FMLA leave who had told a coworker that her husband had a “kill list” with her supervisor’s name on it, ruled a federal district court. The employee worked as a sleep technician in a hospital clinic that diagnosed and treated sleep disorders. She had a history of poor interpersonal interactions with co-workers and patients. This, coupled with confrontations with her supervisor, resulted in the employee being written up and placed on three months’ probation. Soon after, she sought and was granted FMLA leave for breast cancer treatment. While out on leave, the employee came to work one day with her husband. The husband glared and appeared threatening and hostile toward co-workers in the staff lunchroom. When employees relayed this incident to management, it was disclosed that the employee on leave had previously mentioned her husband’s “kill list” to co-workers. She also had stated that friends in her motorcycle gang “knew how to make people disappear.” When the supervisor learned of the “kill list” and other comments, he terminated her employment and the employee sued for interference and retaliation under the FMLA.

The court ruled that the company had a valid defense, because the threats were a valid reason to terminate, and the company would have terminated regardless of whether the employee was on leave. Further, it did not matter whether the supervisor or other employees’ fear of the threats was reasonable under the circumstances. The only requirement was that the employer have a “good faith belief” that the employee engaged in misconduct warranting termination of employment (Ketchum v. St. Cloud Hospital, D Minn, Jan. 2014).

Tips: Although the employer “won” here, it was only after costly litigation and having to prove an independent good faith basis for the termination. Employers should be very cautious about terminating employees while out on protected leave. There may be a valid reason for such a termination, but care should be taken to thoroughly examine and document the issues. You should also consider contacting your Vigilant staff representative. For general information or a refresher on FMLA and state leave laws, check out these Vigilant Legal Guides: “At a Glance: Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (5151), “Federal, Oregon and Washington Leave Comparison Charts” (1183), and “Federal and California Leave Comparison Chart” (1182).

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