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Appeals Court Allows FMLA Suit Against American Medical Association

According to the decision, because of the economic downturn, the AMA decided to eliminate the position of Peter Friedman, the communications campaign manager, because his responsibilities had drastically changed.

October 31, 2011
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A plaintiff can proceed with his Family Medical Leave Act claim because his manager mentioned the worker's medical leave in an email to a supervisor in which the manager said he was changing his mind about terminating someone else and instead was firing the worker, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The ruling by a panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in William Shaffer vs. American Medical Assn. overturned a lower court ruling.

According to the decision, because of the economic downturn, the AMA decided to eliminate the position of Peter Friedman, the communications campaign manager, because his responsibilities had drastically changed.

When AMA Chief Marketing Officer Marietta Parenti asked supervisor Michael Lynch on Oct. 28, 2008, whether Mr. Shaffer's position, which was director of leadership communications, also should be eliminated, Lynch responded that he did not think this would be in the AMA's best interest. The AMA then held its interim meeting in early November of 2008, said the Oct. 18 ruling.

On Nov. 20, 2008, Shaffer notified Lynch he would have knee replacement surgery on Jan. 12, 2009, and would take four to six weeks of leave. On Nov. 30, Lynch wrote in an email to Parenti "that he was now of the mind that the AMA should eliminate Shaffer's position and retain Friedman," according to the decision.

Lynch also wrote, "The team is already preparing for Bill's short-term leave in January so his departure should not have any immediate negative impact."

Shaffer was notified on Dec. 4, 2008, by Lynch and human resources representative Harvey Daniels that he was being let go and that his last day would be Jan. 4, 2009.

On Feb. 3, 2009, after AMA's in-house counsel informed Daniels of possible litigation, Daniels typed up handwritten notes concerning earlier discussions with Mr. Lynch about eliminating Shaffer's position. He dated the typed notes Nov. 25, 2008, and shredded his original notes, according to the opinion. The typed notes stated several reasons for eliminating Shaffer's position, including decreased demand on the speech-writing staff.

"The FLMA forbids an employer from interfering with an employee's right to take leave and return to his job and also from retaliating against an employee who claims benefits under the statute," the appeals court panel said in its unanimous ruling.

"As of Oct. 28, 2008, Lynch had decided to eliminate Friedman's position and not Shaffer's," said the ruling. "Three weeks later, however, Lynch changed his mind. The only events of note in the interim were Shaffer's request for leave on Nov. 20 and the early November AMA interim meeting in Orlando," Florida.

Referring to Lynch's email about preparing for Shaffer's departure, the ruling said, "A jury could find that this statement, the change in the decision of whom to terminate, and the timing of the new decision, soon after Shaffer's leave request support that his request for leave led to his termination.

"A jury might also give credence to Shaffer's argument that Daniels backdated a memorandum to make it appear that the decision to let him go was not influenced by the leave request," said the court, which remanded the case for further proceedings.

Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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