Associational Retaliation Is Not the FMLA's Peanut Butter Cup
The Family Medical Leave Act and Title VII do not combine like chocolate and peanut butter to create an associational retaliation FMLA claim.
In Thompson v. North Am. Stainless, the Supreme Court held that Title VII prohibits associational retaliation; an employer cannot retaliate against an employee by taking an adverse action against that employee's close family member.
The FMLA permits an employee to take up to 12 weeks of annual leave for the serious health condition of a close family member (spouse, child or parent). Putting these two ideas together, one would assume that the FMLA protects against associational retaliation. The FMLA and Title VII, however, do not combine like chocolate and peanut butter to create an associational retaliation FMLA claim.
In Gilbert v. St. Rita's Professional Services, LLC (N.D. Ohio 6/20/12), the Northern District of Ohio refused to recognize a claim for associational retaliation under the FMLA. Gilbert involved three plaintiffs, all of whom worked for St. Rita's: Amy Gilbert, the mother of Shannon Kirby, who, in turn, was the mother-in-law of Mary Haught. After St. Rita's fired all three, they sued. Kirby claimed that St. Rita's retaliated her under the FMLA because her termination coincided with the end of Haught's FMLA leave.
The court disagreed. It concluded that because the FMLA's anti-retaliation language is more narrow than Title VII's language, which the Supreme Court construed in Thompson, the FMLA does not provide for associational retaliation claims:
The Court rested its holding specifically on the broad "person … aggrieved" language of Title VII, language that is notably absent from the FMLA. In contrast to Title VII, the FMLA delineates certain specific classes of individuals who may bring an action — those who have been denied a right protected by the Act ("interference" plaintiffs) and those who opposed an employer's unlawful action under the Act ("retaliation" plaintiffs)…. [I]t stands to reason that Congress's intentional omission of Title VII's broad language in the FMLA specifically prohibits Plaintiffs' interpretative extension of Thompson.
Not all statutes are created equal. Just because an employee has a remedy under one statute does not mean that the same remedy exists under another. When interpreting statutes, words matter—a lot.