Ninth Circuit Defines FMLA Interference Claim

Hello, it's been a while. I've missed you.  You never write. You never tweet. Alas. But I press on to write about the FMLA.

Diane Sanders worked for Newport, Oregon. She took an FMLA leave. Her doctor believed the air quality at work was poor and she suffered from certain chemical sensitivities. The Oregon OSHA and the city's own experts found the air to be within legal standards. After receiving an extended FMLA, her doctor released her to return to work provided the City stop using "low grade" paper, which the City apparently agreed to do.

The City refused to reinstate Sanders from her leave. The City took the position that it could not provide her with a safe workplace because it was not clear what caused her medical issues.

A jury found that the City acted lawfully. But the trial court found in Sanders' favor on a state law claim under Oregon's family leave law.  Oregon claims are tried to the court rather than a jury.

The Ninth Circuit explained there are two types of FMLA claims: discrimination/retaliation and interference.  Sanders pursued an interference claim at trial.  The court explained the applicable legal analysis:
The Sixth and Seventh Circuits have ably summarized the elements of an employee’s prima facie case where the employer fails to reinstate the employee:“the employee must establish that: (1) he was eligible for the FMLA’s protections, (2) his employer was covered by the FMLA, (3) he was entitled to leave under the FMLA, (4) he provided sufficient notice of his intent to take leave, and (5) his employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.”  [citations] We agree with this approach. In interference claims, the employer’s intent is irrelevant to a determination of liability.. . .
The court then went on to hold that if the employee makes out a prima facie case, the employer bears the burden of establishing that the employee was not entitled to reinstatement. That is, the employer must prove that the employee was denied reinstatement for one of the reasons authorized by the FMLA, such as that the employee would not have remained employed if she had not taken leave.  Because the district court's jury instructions required the plaintiff to prove she was denied reinstatement "without reasonable cause," the court vacated the judgment in the City's favor.

The case is Sanders v. City of Newport and the opinion is here.