Can an employee who has worked for a company less than one year sue the company for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)? The answer, according to January 10, 2012 decision of the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, is yes.

In Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., the plaintiff, Kathryn Pereda, had been employed by Brookdale for eight months when she told her employer that she was pregnant and would be requesting FMLA leave upon the birth of her child. By the time of her expected delivery date, she would have been employed by the company for 13 months, thereby satisfying the one-year of employment requirement for leave eligibility under the FMLA.

After 11 months of employment, however, she was terminated, allegedly to prevent her from becoming eligible for leave. She sued in federal district court in Miami, claiming that her employer violated the FMLA by interfering with her right to leave and by retaliating against her for requesting FMLA leave. The district court dismissed the case, stating that she had no right to bring a suit under the FMLA because at the time the events occurred, she was not an eligible employee under the FMLA since: (1) she had not worked for the company for more than one year; and (2) the triggering event that would entitle her to leave – the birth of her child – had not yet occurred.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed that decision and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Recognizing that Pereda had a right to file a lawsuit under the FMLA even though she was not yet eligible to take leave on the date she was fired, the court stated as follows: “We are simply holding that a pre-eligible employee has a cause of action if an employer terminates her in order to avoid having to accommodate that employee with rightful FMLA leave rights once that employee becomes eligible.”

In the underlying case, the plaintiff claimed that prior to advising her employer that she was pregnant and would be requesting FMLA leave, Pereda was considered “a top employee.” Afterward, according to the allegations in the lawsuit, her employer began harassing her “and denigrating her job performance and placed her on a performance improvement plan with unattainable goals.” She was then written up for excessive absenteeism (absences for medical appointments that she claimed had been authorized by her supervisor), and was fired during her 11th month of employment. Based upon the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, this case will now proceed to trial, and a jury will determine whether or not the employer in fact did interfere with Pereda’s FMLA rights, and fired her in retaliation for her intention to take leave.

The best approach for employers is to review carefully any sudden change in performance evaluations for an employee who has provided notice of intent to take leave under the FMLA, regardless of whether the employee is eligible for FMLA at the time the request is made. If there has been a decline in performance, make sure it is objectively documented, and be certain that the supervisor is not biased by the fact that an employee who has been with the company less than one year is planning to take up to 12 weeks leave as soon as they become FMLA-eligible.

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