FMLA Causation Standard Slides Down

Navigating the waters of employee leave is tricky business for employers. At the federal level, FMLA requires “covered” employers to provide employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. The question of the appropriate causation standard that must be proven in an FMLA claim is not unanimous among the Circuit Courts. In Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, the Second Circuit put its stake in the ground.

FMLA claims mainly come in two varieties: interference and retaliation. Generally speaking, an employee brings an FMLA interference claim when her employer allegedly has prevented or otherwise impeded the employee’s ability to exercise rights under the FMLA. Retaliation claims under the FMLA involve an employee actually exercising her rights or opposing perceived unlawful conduct under the FMLA and then being subjected to some adverse employment action by the employer.

Woods involved an FMLA retaliation claim and the appropriate causation standard. In its decision, Woods joined the current lower causation standard employed by a majority of the Circuits, which  requires that employees demonstrate that their exercise of FMLA rights was merely one reason why they were subject to an adverse action by their employer.

The lesser “motivating-factor” standard adopted in Woods, risks a possible increase in employer FMLA retaliation claims and will likely make it more difficult for employers to prevail on summary judgment. In additional to FMLA, many states have enacted their own protected leave laws (e.g. New York Paid Family Leave, effective January 1, 2018), which further complicates what has become a medical leave mine field for employers.

Employers would be well advised to consider this ruling when considering an adverse action against an employee who has or is using FMLA leave. To be clear, employers must realize that if they terminate an employee while on leave or just after returning from leave, the employee very well could win a claim if they can establish that the leave played any part in the termination decision.