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Minor comment makes a big difference in FMLA interference suit

Employment law disputes often play out like a case of he-said/she-said. It is important to understand that even seemingly insignificant statements can prove crucial to the outcome of litigation. A recent ruling in an FMLA interference lawsuit here in Illinois serves as an example of this reality.

The case concerns a lawsuit filed by a school district's director of research testing and assessment in Peoria. The man hired for the job worked in his position for about seven years, at which point he began experiencing "job-related anxiety." He decided to take FMLA leave, and it was granted. Typically, FMLA leave for mental health issues occurs immediately, but the man delayed the start of his leave by about a month because he wanted to wrap up some loose ends at work before taking leave.

In the month before taking leave, the school board held a meeting, wherein the employee's leave was one of the topics discussed. The superintendent said she was "frustrated" that the employee was not taking leave immediately, but the leave was nonetheless approved.

While the employee was on leave, the school district learned of two performance issues that were serious enough to be considered misconduct. When the man returned from FMLA leave, he was placed on administrative leave and was later notified that he was being reassigned to a different job because of the discovered misconduct.

When the employee sued the school district for FMLA interference and retaliation, the district sought to dismiss the claims in summary judgment motion. The court denied the district's motion for two reasons. First, the fact that the disciplinary actions occurred immediately upon his return suggested that his reassignment was related to his leave.

Second, the superintendent's comments that she was "frustrated" with the timing of his leave "presented sufficient evidence of the district's intent to interfere with his FMLA rights," according to a recent article about the case.

This incident is a cautionary tale for both employers and employees. For employers, the lesson is that any statements you make about an employee's legally protected workplace actions must be both careful and measured. Even closed-door meetings may not guarantee privacy to speak freely.

For employees, the lesson is that seemingly small pieces of evidence may be crucial to proving a claim against your employer. Therefore, you may want to seek the help of an experienced employment law attorney who can help you examine all aspects of your case and collect evidence that may be beneficial to its outcome. 

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