Your boss and fellow employees cannot treat you so poorly that it would change the terms and conditions of your employment or that it would result in a reasonable employee quitting his or her job. However, they are under no legal requirement to be nice to you. A federal judge in Pennsylvania recently ruled just that. Although an employee returning from a federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave got a frosty reception, it did not constitute grounds for constructive discharge.
In the case of Checa v. Drexel University, Judge Mark Kearney ruled that the FMLA does not require an employer to ignore pre-leave performance problems or discuss them in a friendly manner at the end of the medical leave, according to the Legal Intelligencer.
The plaintiff in the case, Debra Checa, started working for defendant Drexel University College of Medicine in 2010. In 2014, Checa asked for and received an FMLA leave to treat a carpal tunnel condition. Her leave was scheduled to end September 14, but Checa’s mother died during the leave, and Drexel approved her request to extend it.
Employee Gets Cold Shoulder After Leave
Between the surgery and her mother’s death, Checa probably was not in the best frame of mind. That was not aided by the reception she got when she returned to work. Here is what happened according to the court’s decision:
- Checa met with Christina Zervoudakes, who took over Checa’s work responsibilities during her leave, and Kathy Lally, the person providing administrative support in her department.
- Neither gave Checa a warm welcome back or offered condolences on her mother’s passing.
- The meeting was to talk about transitioning work back to Checa and to review the tasks that she did not finish before her leave started (though before the leave, she said that she would get them done).
- Checa became upset, stood up, and said, “I quit.”
- She came back to her office and called her supervisor, Dr. Carolyn O’Connor. Checa told Dr. O’Connor about the meeting and said for the second time, “I quit.”
- She later sent O’Connor an e-mail confirming her resignation, stating that “I am sorry but I did not expect to be attacked by a very unhappy, miserable, ‘perfect’ person (Christina) who agreed to cover while I was out, and be told about everything I didn’t do, and how everything I did do was incorrectly done. . . . This is not the place for me. I hope you find someone more competent, maybe (sic) . . . My last day will be Friday, October 10, 2014.”
- The next day, Checa tried to retract her resignation, but Drexel decided not to allow her to do so.
Checa later sued Drexel, claiming that she was retaliated against for asking for and receiving her FMLA leave and for constructive discharge (work conditions were so bad a reasonable person would be justified in quitting). She alleged that the “first day back” meeting was a planned attack and that Drexel’s retaliatory intent was the reason that she could not rescind her resignation.
Drexel asked the judge for summary judgment dismissal before trial because Checa could not establish a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation. Judge Kearney agreed and dismissed the case.
Checa Cannot Show Drexel Took an Action Against Her to Justify Her Legal Claims
Drexel agreed that the “first day back” meeting was a disciplinary form of employee counseling. However, the court found that the meeting did not constitute an adverse employment action needed to prove a discrimination case because it did not change the terms or conditions of Checa’s employment.
- The meeting did not affect Checa’s ability to work or advance in her career.
- Checa did not suffer a change in job title with less prestige or a suspension of pay.
- Lally did not have the ability to discipline Checa.
- Checa did not receive a formal or written performance evaluation. She was only criticized due to her failure to complete assignments before the start of her leave.
- The lack of empathy and Lally and Zervoudakes’ failure to exchange pleasantries with Checa were not an adverse employment action.
Judge Kearney also decided that Drexel’s decision not to take her back was also not an adverse employment action.
- Checa had already resigned, so the decision could not change the privileges of her employment, deprive her of employment opportunities, or otherwise adversely affect her status as an employee.
- There was no causal link shown between the end of the FMLA leave and Drexel’s decision not to allow her to rescind her resignation.
- Although the events occurred within two days of each other, the timing was the result of Checa’s own actions.
- Because Checa repeatedly said she quit, her voluntary resignation was an intervening event ending any link between Checa’s FMLA leave and Drexel’s decision not to allow Checa to rescind her resignation.
The court also dismissed Checa’s constructive discharge claim. Checa argued that Drexel acted out a premeditated plan to discipline her when she returned from her leave and that the “first day back” meeting amounted to extreme conditions justifying constructive discharge. Judge Kearney did not agree.
- A brief meeting with criticisms of Checa’s pre-leave work, without pleasantries or condolences, did not rise to the level of working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person subjected to them would feel compelled to resign.
- Checa’s working conditions could not have been that bad because she changed her mind the next day and wanted to keep her job.
The court ruled that Checa did not establish a prima facie claim of retaliation. Even if she had, Drexel gave a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the alleged adverse actions:
- Checa was unable to accept constructive criticism and resigned in an unprofessional manner.
- Checa’s reliance on the claim that Drexel “set her up” did not establish pretext (meaning that Drexel’s reasons were a cover up for its discriminatory intent) because just repeating rumors did not overcome Drexel’s legitimate business reasons.
- There were no allegations that anyone at Drexel said anything negative about Checa’s FMLA leave.
Summing It Up
We all want to work in a supportive, positive atmosphere, but employers are not legally required to provide one. Discrimination claims based on a hostile work atmosphere require plaintiffs to demonstrate sufficiently negative conditions and to establish that there is a favored group of employees who are getting much better treatment.
- Employees who take FMLA leave can be treated the same as if they never took the leave. Employers can discuss pre-leave performance problems after the leave, just as if the leave was never taken.
- Think very long and hard before quitting. It is not a decision to make in the heat of the moment. As this case shows, once you say you want out, there is no requirement that you be let back in.
- Checa’s resignation after a counseling session was seen as poor judgment, which can be a valid reason to decide not to rescind a resignation. If your employer, rightly or wrongly, sees you as a problem employee, it will probably take advantage of the opportunity to show you the door that your resignation provides them.
If you feel that you have been wrongly denied an FMLA leave or retaliated against for asking for or receiving one, contact our office so we can talk about your situation, about how the law may be applied in your case, and about what you can do to protect your legal rights and interests.