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In Byrd v. Clay Cnty., Texas, No. 22-10746, 2023 WL 3122462 (5th Cir. Apr. 27, 2023), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently addressed this very question.

Linda Byrd already working for the Sheriff’s Office in Clay County, Texas when a new Sheriff, Jeff Lyde was elected. In making plans to take over the Sheriff’s Office, he advised several employees, including Byrd, that he would not be continuing their employment when he took office. Although Lyde individually emailed the to-be-terminated employees, Byrd denied receiving the email.

Yet, on the same day as the termination email notification, Byrd applied for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Prior to Lyde taking office, a Clay County HR employee outside the Sherriff’s Office approved Byrd’s FMLA leave request. When Byrd’s FMLA ended, the County did not to reinstate her employment and Byrd sued for FMLA retaliation and wrongful termination.

What is the FMLA and what rights does it provide employees?

FMLA is a federal law that provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period for certain family and medical reasons.

Under the FMLA, eligible employees may take leave for any of the following reasons:

  1. To care for a newborn or newly adopted child.
  2. To care for a seriously ill family member, including a spouse, child, or parent.
  3. To recover from a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform their job duties.
  4. To deal with certain qualifying exigencies arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, child, or parent is a covered military member on active duty.
  5. To care for a covered servicemember with a serious injury or illness if the employee is the servicemember’s spouse, child, parent, or next of kin.

During the FMLA leave, the employee’s health benefits must continue, and the employee typically must be reinstated to their job or an equivalent position when they return to work. Employers may not retaliate against an employee for taking FMLA leave, and may not interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of any FMLA rights.

It is important to note that not all employees are eligible for FMLA leave, and not all employers are covered by the FMLA. To be eligible, employees must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months preceding the start of the FMLA leave. Employers covered by the FMLA include private employers with 50 or more employees, as well as government employers at the federal, state, and local levels.

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Can an employer refuse to reinstate an employee returning from FMLA leave and if so, for what reason?

An employer may refuse to reinstate an employee returning from FMLA leave in certain limited circumstances. These circumstances include:

  1. The employee would not have been employed if they had not taken FMLA leave (for example, if the employer had to lay off employees due to financial difficulties and the employee would have been included in those layoffs).
  2. The employee cannot perform the essential functions of their job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, because of a physical or mental condition.
  3. The employee engaged in fraud, dishonesty, or other illegal conduct during the FMLA leave.
  4. The employee exceeded the 12-week FMLA leave entitlement within a 12-month period (although an additional disability accommodation may be sought Americans with Disabilities Act).

Importantly, an employer cannot refuse to reinstate an employee simply because they took FMLA leave or because the employer was inconvenienced by the employee’s absence. If an employer violates an employee’s FMLA rights by refusing to reinstate them without a valid reason, the employee may have grounds for a legal claim against the employer, and the employee should consult an employment law firm.

In Byrd, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held in favor of the employer under these circumstances:

Under the FMLA, however, employees may not claim “any right, benefit or position of employment” that they would not “have been entitled [to] had the employee not taken the leave.” See 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(3)(B). Relying on this section, we have held that an FMLA plaintiff “must actually be entitled to the position to which he seeks reinstatement.” Shirley v. Precision Castparts Corp., 726 F.3d 675, 682 (5th Cir. 2013). That means “denying reinstatement to an employee whose right to restored employment had already been extinguished … does not violate the Act.” Ibid (emphasis original). So, when a plaintiff’s position “would have been lawfully terminated had she not taken leave,” she cannot prove an FMLA interference claim. Amedee v. Shell Chemical LP, 953 F.3d 831, 836 (5th Cir. 2020). In other words, “[e]mployees cannot immunize themselves from legitimate termination by taking FMLA leave.” Id. …

The record makes indisputably clear that had Byrd not taken leave, she would have been terminated on November 30, 2020. Unless challenged, that factual proposition alone disposes of Byrd’s FMLA claim. See Amedee, 953 F.3d at 836. Since none of the alleged disputes of fact cited by Byrd in this appeal disturb the idea that Byrd’s termination was imminent when she sought leave, none of her proffered disputes could affect the outcome of the suit. Accordingly, none are “material” for the purposes of Rule 56. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. For example, Byrd argues that Lyde lacked authority to terminate her on November 16, 2020, because at that time he was but Sheriff-Elect, not Sheriff. Byrd’s argument is immaterial, because no view of Lyde’s position on November 16, 2020, could change the fact that he could lawfully terminate Byrd when he planned to do so, on November 30, 2020. Byrd also contends that a dispute exists over whether she saw Lyde’s November 16, 2020 email. But it does not matter whether Byrd knew that her job was ending when she applied for leave; it matters only that her job was in fact was ending.

Id. at *1–2. Although the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did not need to reach this issue, Byrd also had a causation issue. Again, to prevail on a FMLA retaliation claim, the employee must show that the employer took the adverse action because of the employee’s use of FLMA rights. In this case, a new boss came in and fired a lot of people, none of which other than Byrd had used FLMA. To that end, it appears on its face that the mass firings were based on a change of administration rather than any singular employee’s use of FMLA.

While the use of FMLA did not save Byrd’s job, it did extend her rights to health insurance until she was ready to return.

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Why should I consult an employment law firm regarding my FMLA rights at work?

Consulting an employment law firm regarding your FMLA rights at work can be beneficial in a number of ways. Employment law firms have attorneys who are knowledgeable about employment law and can help you understand your rights under the FMLA. They can help you determine whether you are eligible for FMLA leave, what types of leave you are entitled to, and what your employer’s obligations are under the law. If you believe your employer has violated your FMLA rights, an employment law firm can advise you on your options for taking legal action, such as filing a complaint. The firm can also help you negotiate with your employer to try to resolve any disputes related to your FMLA leave. Going through a situation where you believe your FMLA rights have been violated can be stressful and overwhelming. Consulting with an employment law firm can provide you with peace of mind and a sense of control, knowing that you have an experienced legal team on your side advocating for your rights.

Your best option is to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm can provide you with top employment lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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