Appeals Court Sides with Employer in FMLA Lawsuit

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer did not violate the Family and Medical Leave Act when it terminated an employee who allegedly threatened the company's benefits provider after his application for short-term disability benefits was partially denied.

Mark McConnell who for 16 years worked as a gasoline truck driver for Swifty Oil Co. and Swifty Transportation Inc. sued Swifty on the grounds that the company violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by delaying the processing of his short-term disability benefits application and by unlawfully retaliating against him for exercising his rights under the FMLA when Swifty terminated his employment.

In 2003, a doctor diagnosed McConnell with acute stress reaction and major depression. The doctor prescribed McConnell an anti-depressant and placed McConnell on medical leave for two weeks. After a re-examination, the doctor extended McConnell's leave for two months.

When McConnell applied for short-term disability benefits, Evonne McHugh, a representative from Jefferson Pilot Swifty's disability benefits provider sent McConnell a letter stating McConnell's request for short-term disability had been granted through June 26, 2003, but benefits after that date were denied.

During a phone conversation between McConnell and McHugh, McConnell allegedly became agitated and threatened to "personally come pay [her] a visit," according to McHugh's notes.

McConnell, according to the appeals court opinion, denies making such a statement.

After the phone conversation, McHugh informed Swifty officials of the alleged threat. Swifty Transportation President Don Smith promptly called McHugh, expressed his apologies and told McHugh that McConnell would be fired, according to the appeals court opinion.

The next day, Smith instructed Pat Adamson one of McConnell's managers to investigate the alleged threat and determine its veracity, and Smith subsequently terminated McConnell.

Court: McConnell Was to Blame for Delay

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled in favor of Swifty, and McConnell appealed on the grounds that Swifty interfered with his FMLA rights and unlawfully retaliated against him for exercising his FMLA rights.

Agreeing with the district court, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that McConnell and his doctor were the ones responsible for the delay in processing his application for short-term disability benefits not Swifty.

"McConnell applied for short-term disability benefits on May 30, 2003. [His doctor], however, failed to provide the necessary physician's certification until June 16, 2003," U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Siler Jr. wrote on behalf of the appeals court. "Additionally, McConnell failed to sign the release on the application, even though the application stated that failure to do so would delay the processing of the application."

McConnell Failed to Prove Retaliation Claim

McConnell's appeal also claimed that when Swifty terminated his employment, the company was retaliating against him for his pursuit of short-term disability benefits under FMLA.

From a legal standpoint, the burden was on Swifty "to come forth with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for McConnell's discharge," Siler explains.

Swifty said its reason for discharging McConnell was that it honestly believed McConnell had threatened McHugh and "that the threat involved the use of one of its tanker trucks," Siler wrote.

To win his case, McConnell needed to prove that Swifty's proffered reasons for firing him were "pretextual," meaning the reasons had no basis in fact, the reasons did not actually motivate his discharge or the reasons were insufficient to motivate his discharge.

McConnell, ultimately, failed to meet the burden of proof for any of the definitions of pretextual, according to the appeals court.

"The record indicates Swifty honestly believed that McConnell threatened McHugh and that its decision to terminate him was reasonably informed and considered," Siler wrote.

The appeals court opinion points out Swifty even "took the extra step" of having one of McConnell's managers contact McConnell to get McConnell's version of events. The manager Adamson testified that he spoke with McConnell on the phone and during the conversation McConnell admitted to threatening McHugh.

"Swifty contends that it decided to terminate McConnell based on his conversation with Adamson," Siler wrote. "McConnell, of course, denies making any admission but did testify in his deposition that he told McHugh that "'he was mad enough that if I could afford it, I would drive my truck to Swifty and take care of it myself because it was intentionally too long with no money.'"

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