Human Resources

Train HR Managers to Watch What They Say (or E-Mail)!

By Kate McGovern Tornone

Missteps on the part of HR can lead to legal hot water—and it’s important that your HR managers are trained properly. To illustrate this, BLR® editor Kate McGovern Tornone examines a recent court case.

An employee will get to take her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lawsuit to a jury, a federal appeals court has determined, largely because an HR manager informed her in an e-mail that her leave was impeding the company’s work.

That e-mail was enough evidence to convince the court to revive her claims and send them to trial. A reasonable jury could interpret the statement as a warning that taking additional FMLA leave could put her job in jeopardy, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Diamond v. Hospice of Fla. Keys, Inc., No. 15-15716 (January 27, 2016).

Facts of the Case

Jill Diamond worked for Hospice of Florida Keys, Inc., as a licensed clinical social worker. She was approved for intermittent FMLA leave to care for both of her parents, who lived 300 miles away.

When she returned to work after an unforeseen leave, a new HR manager who had just taken over sent her an e-mail requesting updated medical certification plus travel receipts. The manager also told her that such documentation also would be required in the future unless she provided 30 days’ notice of the need for leave.

When her mother was hospitalized a few days later, Diamond requested 2 more weeks’ leave. The HR manager sent her an e-mail reminding her about the new travel receipt requirement, which included the following statement: “Your continued unpaid time away from the workplace compromises the quality of care we are able to provide as an organization.”

Diamond asked the HR manager to explain, and she replied with a list of performance issues, including Diamond being behind on updating patient care plans and submitting her time sheets late. “These are document[ed] examples of ‘quality of care’ suffering due to repeated ‘emergent’ leaves of absence,” the manager wrote. Five days later, the employer fired her for performance problems, including those listed in the HR manager’s e-mail.

Diamond sued, alleging that the company interfered with her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave. A federal district court dismissed her claims, finding that Diamond failed to show that she was harmed by the alleged interference. She also failed to show that the hospital’s reason for her termination was false; it held. Diamond appealed.

In tomorrow’s Advisor we’ll learn what happened in this case—and the training takeaway for employers.