The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania recently re-visited a case on remand from the Third Circuit, and allowed an insurance company employee’s claims of FMLA interference and retaliation to go forward. Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Co., M.D. Pa., No. 1:05-cv-0944, 1/15/10. The case is noteworthy on more than one point: first, the 3d Circuit remanded the case on a finding that the employee’s hours worked at home might be counted toward the 1250 minimum hours needed to be eligible for FMLA leave; second, that evidence of ongoing “antagonism” between the company and the employee might form the basis of FMLA retaliation; and finally, that a request for FMLA leave may be viewed as a “protected activity” under Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act.

Nationwide Insurance Company hired Brenda Erdman in 1980. Erdman was a full-time employee until 1998, when she began to work part-time in order to care for her daughter, who was born with Downs Syndrome. In 2002, Erdman’s request for a 4-day workweek schedule was granted. However, Erdman regularly worked extra hours from home, for which her supervisor consistently authorized payment, allowing Erdman to exercise “comp” time based upon those hours. In 2002, Erdman began to report to a new supervisor, and asked that person whether continued comp time would be allowed. Although there was no specific response, the supervisor made no initial objection to Erdman’s continued use of comp time. However, in September 2002, that supervisor admonished Erdman on a number of performance issues, and then told her that she could no longer use extra hours as “comp” time.

In February 2003, Nationwide informed Erdman that her part-time position was being eliminated, and offered her a full-time job, which Erdman accepted. In April 2003, Erdman submitted paperwork asking for FMLA leave for the month of August, which she needed to prepare her daughter for school. Nationwide fired Erdman on May 9, 2003, stating that it was doing so for prior workplace behavioral issues. Erdman filed a lawsuit against Nationwide, including claims under the FMLA and of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. In dismissing the case, the lower court initially granted summary judgment in favor of the company, holding that Erdman had not worked the necessary 1250 hours to qualify for FMLA leave. Erdman appealed.

1. Hours worked at home might count toward 1250 hour requirement.
Last year, the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression for that court: whether Erdman’s of-site work hours could be counted toward the number of hours needed to qualify for leave under the FMLA. The Court decided that the issue was a question of fact, because the FMLA counts all work hours that an employer “knows or has reason to believe” are being worked by the employee. The Third Circuit held that a reasonable jury could conclude that Nationwide had constructive notice of the fact that Erdman had worked from home and, therefore, could find that she had worked the requisite number of hours to qualify for FMLA leave. The case was remanded back to the district court following that determination.

2. Ongoing antagonism supports FMLA retaliation claim
On remand, the district court specifically discussed Erdman’s FMLA retaliation claim, and determined that Erdman had provided sufficient evidence to create an issue of fact as to whether “ongoing antagonism” – including monitoring personal calls, misapplying company policies, and providing inconsistent reasons for the termination – to establish a causal link between her FMLA request and her firing. According to the court, those actions could allow a trier of fact to discredit the company’s contention that “incidents of inappropriate workplace behavior” prompted it to terminate Erdman’s employment.

3. FMLA can be “protected activity” under state law
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), Erdman must show that she “engaged in a protected activity” for which an adverse action was taken. In this case, Erdman claimed that the protected activity was her request for FMLA leave. She pointed out that the PHRA prohibits sex-based discrimination, and one basis of the FMLA as stated by Congress is to “expressly delineate how sexual/gender discrimination can occur in caretaker roles and how the purpose of the FMLA is to minimize employment discrimination based on sex.” Here, the district court predicted that, although Pennsylvania courts have not yet addressed the issue, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would find that an FMLA request qualifies as a protected activity under the PHRA, and therefore denied Nationwide’s motion for summary judgment on the PHRA retaliation claim.

This case is one which employers should review and understand before taking an adverse employment action against any employee who is on FMLA leave or who has requested such a leave. While employers are entitled to impose disciplinary actions based upon violation of company policies and procedures, such actions cannot be based upon an employee’s FMLA leave. Importantly, an employee’s FMLA-related absences or intermittent-leave schedule does not provide a sufficient legal basis for disciplinary action against that employee.