Citing the employer’s “insufficient documentation,” the U.S. District Court of New Jersey found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether a former employee was terminated for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and therefore denied the employer summary judgment. The plaintiff was fired a week after returning from leave.
In August 2014, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) hired the plaintiff at its auto mechanic shop in Edison, N.J. PSE&G asserted that the plaintiff failed to understand the “criticality” of his work, had a “lackadaisical work ethic” and “generally lacked focus on the work being performed on equipment that other employees depended upon to keep them safe.” PSE&G further asserted that supervisors had several informal conversations with the plaintiff regarding the “unacceptable quality” of his work. But the plaintiff testified that he did not recall any supervisor ever speaking to him about any facet of his job performance that was alleged to have not met expectations.
On April 26, 2015, the plaintiff was injured in a motorcycle accident. He sought FMLA leave, and his request was approved from April 30 through May 30, 2015. The plaintiff returned to work on June 1, 2015, without any physical restrictions. Upon his return, the plaintiff was assigned to work in the stockroom and not as a mechanic. The assignment to the stockroom was temporary, and the plaintiff was reassigned as an auto mechanic. On that same day, PSE&G conducted a “consensus call” attended by various supervisors and managers regarding “Probationary employee failing to qualify. He has been out ill since 4/28/15.” The note did not mention the plaintiff’s quality of work. The plaintiff was discharged on June 4, 2015.
He sued PSE&G, alleging an FMLA interference claim. He said PSE&G terminated him because he opted to take FMLA leave after he was injured.
The court noted that to prevail on an FMLA interference claim, the employee merely needs to show that he or she was entitled to benefits under the FMLA and that he or she was denied them. Preliminarily, the court stated that the only question before it with respect to the interference claim was whether PSE&G did in fact interfere with the plaintiff’s rights under the FMLA.
According to the plaintiff, one of the ways PSE&G interfered with his FMLA rights was that he was “pressured to resign while he was on leave and was wrongfully terminated within one week of returning from his leave.” PSE&G claimed that it was its intention to terminate the plaintiff prior to his taking FMLA leave and that his discharge was a result of his poor work performance and in no way related to the leave.
The district court stated that all of the testimony cited by the plaintiff and PSE&G contained “nothing more than conclusory, self-serving statements.” PSE&G attempted to support its position by pointing to documentary evidence, but the district court assessed this evidence as “insufficient.”
The court noted that one handwritten note appeared to be written on a notepad, with no letterhead or any insignia that would identify the origin. That note read, “held expectational meeting with Plaintiff in regards to his PM on truck UT 1250. Spoke to him about being thorough on PM + reading sheet + checking unit correctly. Also told him he did a good job on engineer placement on UU13505.”
While PSE&G maintained that this handwritten note showed that the plaintiff was performing poorly, the court remarked that it was “left with more questions than answers” because there was no explanation of what an “expectational meeting” entailed and the note said the plaintiff was excelling in some aspect of his job.
Accordingly, the court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to why the plaintiff was terminated. Therefore, whether the plaintiff was discharged because of work performance or because he exercised his right to FMLA leave is a question for a jury.
Baske v. Public Service Electric & Gas, D.N.J., No. 16-105 (Feb. 14, 2018).
Professional Advise: Performance evaluations, particularly corrective action plans, should be set out in writing, uniformly structured among similar positions, timely and consistently applied, with all comments and objectives made clear to all parties.