A Pennsylvania student worked first as a research assistant and then as a technician at a Pittsburgh hospital. Management later said it was unhappy with her attendance and scheduling requests and fired her for those reasons. In the meantime, however, she had asked for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—just before she was fired.
What happened. “Lender” became a psychiatry technician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in September 2007. By mid-December, she’d been absent twice, late six times, and asked for scheduling changes many times, usually after the deadline for such changes had passed. Her supervisor later testified that scheduling Lender became a “nightmare.”
The boss also testified that after a December 1 scheduling incident when Lender tried to find a substitute to work her shift but was unsuccessful, she then called in sick, and the boss decided to fire her. But the boss needed to check with HR beforehand, and she went on vacation from December 31 to January 7.
Meanwhile, Lender’s mother became very ill on January 3, and Lender called in again, saying she couldn’t work. When the boss returned on January 7, she later claimed she didn’t see notes in the attendance log referring to Lender’s mother’s illness, and she planned to fire her on January 8. But that day, Lender e-mailed a request for leave to care for her mother.
The boss later maintained that she never saw that e-mail, and she fired Lender on January 10.
Lender sued in federal district court, charging interference with and retaliation for her request for leave under the FMLA. The district judge, hearing about her poor attendance record, ruled in favor of the hospital. Lender appealed to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
What the court said. In her testimony, the supervisor frequently said she didn’t remember the sequence of events—when she’d decided to fire Lender, when she’d called HR, whether she knew of the mother’s illness, and the leave request. But there were two big problems: First, a colleague of the supervisor testified that the boss had told her about the mother’s illness, and second, the e-mail logs showed that the boss had answered the leave request. So judges concluded that Lender appeared to have a case for the FMLA interference and retaliation, and they sent the issue back to district court for reconsideration. Lichtenstein v. UPMC, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 11-3419 (8/3/12).
Point to remember: A supervisor needs thorough written records of the decision to fire someone; they’re crucial in court, and “I don’t remember.” won’t work.