The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has reversed the dismissal of a Jacksonville woman’s FMLA claims, giving new life to her lawsuit against her former employer. The court’s opinion is a strong reminder of how frequently trial courts overstep their authority by dismissing employees’ lawsuits rather than allowing a jury to hear the evidence.
The plaintiff (“Benz”) was a warehouse manager for Crowley Maritime Corporation and Crowley Logistics, Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, where she had worked for nearly 12 years. Throughout her career at Crowley, Benz received numerous promotions, awards, and glowing performance reviews, including her last one in February 2014.
In July 2014, Benz’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, as a result of which Benz took one month of FMLA leave to care for her daughter. The day before her leave began, a senior Crowley manager emailed Benz’s immediate superior and stated that she was “concern[ed] about this FML from [Benz]” and that “we should sit and have a backup plan in place.” While Benz was not terminated in 2014, following that month-long leave, her superiors began amassing a pile of written complaints against Benz, but without informing Benz of any serious problems. In October, the corporate manager sent an email about the alleged problems with Benz’s performance and noted that “[w]e do have enough to let [her] go at this time.” Another Crowley manager delayed the planned termination until after Christmas, but December and January passed with no action taken.
In January, Benz took a week of FMLA leave to be with her daughter while she received cancer treatment in Texas. Immediately after she requested the leave, her superiors began emailing each other about terminating her. Finally, on February 4, Benz requested another month of FMLA leave to continue caring for her daughter. HR approved the request, but the next day the same senior manager made the decision to terminate her employment. The managers who personally terminated Benz told her it was due to “budget cuts” and did not mention any kind of performance issues.
Benz sued claiming that Crowley interfered with her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for exercising her FMLA rights. The trial court in Jacksonville ultimately dismissed Benz’s case on summary judgment concluding that the plaintiff had not made a connection between the FMLA leave and the termination decision. The trial court also dismissively complained that it was not a “super-personnel department” and stated that it would not “examin[e] the wisdom” of Crowley’s business decisions.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit properly construed the evidence on summary judgment in the plaintiff’s favor—as the trial could should have done—and concluded that a termination just two days after Benz’s FMLA request was adequate to allow a jury to conclude that it was retaliatory.
Proving discriminatory or retaliatory intent is undoubtedly the most difficult hurdle an employee faces in litigation. Many district courts are more than happy to simply accept the employer’s version of events as true and ignore circumstantial evidence of intent. It is heartening to see that in this case the 11th Circuit was willing to ensure that this plaintiff is able to put her evidence in front of a jury.
The plaintiff is this case was represented by attorneys Kirsten Doolittle and Scott T. Fortune. The appeal is captioned Benz v. Crowley Maritime Corporate et al., No. 16-17363 (11th Cir.), on appeal from the Middle District of Florida.