Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment in FMLA Case of First Impression in West Virginia
April 29, 2018
On April 10, 2018, Judge Thomas E. Johnston of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District for West Virginia granted summary judgment to Frontier West Virginia Inc. (Frontier) in a case brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by a former employee (the plaintiff). Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that Frontier interfered with his FMLA rights by denying him requested leave and then retaliated against him for trying to take leave under the FMLA by terminating his employment. As explained in Judge Johnston’s decision, Frontier maintained an attendance “step” program that provided for increasing discipline based on the accumulation of unapproved absences. While the plaintiff received approved FMLA leave for several prior absences, he was denied FMLA leave for a series of absences that occurred in early December 2013. Thereafter, the plaintiff incurred additional, unexcused tardies and absences that resulted in the termination of his employment under the step process of the attendance program. The plaintiff’s employment was terminated in January 2015 and he filed his lawsuit in January 2017.
Under the FMLA, a lawsuit must be filed within two years of a violation unless the violation is considered willful, which will extend the statute of limitations to three years. In this case, Judge Johnston held that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was filed more than three years after Frontier denied his most recent leave request and classified his absences as unexcused. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the FMLA’s statute of limitations. In arriving at this decision, Judge Johnston noted that the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals were split on the issue of whether the statute of limitations begins to run from the date of an employee’s discharge or from the date an employee’s most recent request for FMLA leave is denied and classified as unexcused. While noting that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes West Virginia, has not decided this issue, Judge Johnston’s holding agreed with the decisions issued by the Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has taken a contrary view by holding that the statute of limitations begins to run from the date of an employee’s discharge.
This is a significant decision in favor of employers who conduct business in West Virginia. By finding that the statute of limitations for an FMLA claim begins to run from the date of the last denial of leave, employers will not be subjected to liability for stale leave decisions that occur long before an employee is ultimately discharged. As Judge Johnston noted in his decision, “to hold otherwise would allow FMLA claims stemming from wrongful denial of leave where the employer has a progressive absenteeism policy to be brought years after the denial of leave when the employee is terminated, regardless of whether the denial of leave precipitated the termination.”
A copy of Judge Johnston’s Memorandum Opinion and Order can be accessed at this link.