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Nurse’s FMLA and ADA Claims Survive Summary Judgment

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On February 26, 2018, in Smith v. North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied a motion for summary judgment submitted by North Shore–Long Island Jewish Health System (the “Hospital”) to dismiss claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) brought by Nola Smith, a former registered nurse with the Hospital, finding triable issues based largely on evidence that the hospital strayed from following its established policy.

Throughout Ms. Smith’s tenure with the Hospital, she suffered from anxiety disorders and panic attacks. The Hospital accommodated her with a lighter work schedule than other nurses, and she took intermittent leaves of absence under the FMLA.  The Hospital, however, issued Ms. Smith multiple warnings for her use of leave, even though some of the leave was under the FMLA and therefore protected. (The Hospital generated a spreadsheet of nurses who called in sick more than three times per quarter, regardless of whether the absences were covered by approved leave under the FMLA.)  The Hospital also allegedly denied Ms. Smith’s transfer requests and did not allow her to attend career-enhancing conferences because of the number of her leaves of absence. At one point, the Hospital did allow Ms. Smith to attend a conference, but she could not find anyone to cover her shift and ended up missing the conference.  The Hospital, however, paid Ms. Smith for the conference attendance, which payment Ms. Smith assumed represented accrued paid time off.  The Hospital later discovered that Ms. Smith had not attended the conference and fired her for accepting pay for a conference she failed to attend.

Ms. Smith claimed that the Hospital denied her transfer requests and terminated her in retaliation for having taken FMLA leave and because of her disability. The Hospital argued that the transfer denials were not adverse employment actions as a matter of law and that there was no causal connection between Ms. Smith’s exercise of her FMLA rights or her disability and the Hospital’s denials of her transfer requests or its termination of her employment.  The court agreed with Ms. Smith, finding that the Hospital’s transfer denials were adverse actions and that a reasonable jury could find that the Hospital fired Ms. Smith for exercising her rights under the FMLA or because of her disability.

Although the transfers Ms. Smith requested did not come with immediate tangible benefits, the assignments were more prestigious and could have conferred tangible benefits in the future. Only one of the five transfer requests, however, was found to have been denied because of an unlawful animus. With respect to the one actionable transfer, the Hospital claimed that the transfer was denied because Ms. Smith failed to provide certain employee information on the request. On other transfer requests, however, Ms. Smith had left similar information blank, and the lack of information was not cited as a reason for a denial of the other transfer requests. This inconsistency was evidence that the Hospital’s cited reason for the denial was pretext.

The court also found that Ms. Smith had produced direct evidence of a causal connection between her having taken FMLA leave and the Hospital’s denial of her transfer requests in the form of statements made by Ms. Smith’s supervisor, Rhonnie Jackson, who told her the transfers had been denied because she had taken excessive leave and allegedly threatened her, saying that he would get even with her for leaving him short-staffed.

Regarding Ms. Smith’s termination, the court found that Ms. Smith had provided sufficient evidence of pretext. The Hospital’s usual policy if a nurse was paid for a conference and did not attend was to reverse the charges or use the employee’s accrued time off.  Here, the Hospital offered no explanation as to why this was not done, even though Ms. Smith never submitted a certificate of attendance and Mr. Jackson allegedly knew that Ms. Smith had worked the shift (she had asked him to remove her from the shift so that she could attend the conference, to which he replied that she had to find a replacement). Mr. Jackson also failed to explain why he had waited five months to report Ms. Smith to HR for failing to attend the conference. As such, the court found that a reasonable jury could find that the Hospital’s termination of Ms. Smith was a “disingenuous overreaction” to justify dismissal of an employee who asserted her FMLA rights.

Regarding the ADA and NYCHRL claims—which largely mirror the FMLA claims—the Hospital argued that Ms. Smith was not qualified because she could not work when symptomatic. But Ms. Smith had worked at the Hospital for years, using intermittent FMLA leave throughout her employment, and the Hospital provided no evidence that this intermittent leave was not a reasonable accommodation. Since the FMLA leave was taken because of a disability, Ms. Smith demonstrated a causal connection between her disability and the adverse employment action. And, using the same rationale as for the FMLA claim, the court found that the denials of transfer were adverse employment actions and that Ms. Smith had demonstrated pretext for her ADA claim and her NYCHRL claim.

At The Harman Firm, LLP, we zealously advocate for workers who have suffered adverse employment action for taking protected leave for a serious medical condition or a disability, If you believe your employer has discriminated against you, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.