PHILADELPHIA – June 10, 2020 – Joseph Centeno, shareholder and co-chair of Buchanan’s Labor & Employment section and Charlene Barker Gedeus, counsel in the Labor & Employment section, secured summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Drexel University in a case that involved one count of FMLA retaliation and one count wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
The case began in April 2017, when Drexel University College of Medicine (“Drexel”) received a complaint of disability discrimination against the plaintiff, a director-level employee by one of her subordinates. Following Drexel’s initiation of an investigation into the complaint, the plaintiff requested and used both continuous and intermittent FMLA leave. Drexel continued its investigation notwithstanding the plaintiff’s leave. During the course of Drexel’s investigation, the plaintiff questioned the complainant and another subordinateabout their role in the investigation despite directives by Drexel’s human resources department not to interfere in the investigation. During this time, the plaintiff extended her FMLA leave. In July 2017, Drexel concluded its investigation and made the decision to discharge the plaintiff who was still out of work on FMLA leave at the time. Consequently, the plaintiff brought suit alleging that Drexel terminated her employment in retaliation for her request to extend her FMLA leave.
The Court’s decision is significant because Drexel was able to obtain summary judgment notwithstanding the close timing of the plaintiff’s protected activity and her discharge. The Court explained that proximity alone does not necessarily provide circumstantial evidence of retaliation. Specifically, the court noted that “[a]t first glance, some aspects of [the Plaintiff’s] allegations would appear to create a close question [regarding causation]. To start, unlike in the typical retaliation case, [Plaintiff] alleges that Drexel retaliated against her for extending her FMLA leave, not for taking leave in the first place. That raises an added element of concern because [Plaintiff] was already engaged in the protected conduct when she was terminated; in fact, she sought additional protection. Viewed in isolation, the closeness of [Plaintiff’s] discharge to her request for an extension of FMLA leave might seem to support her claim, given that only five days elapsed between the two events. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the evidence does not support an inference of discrimination.”