Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
Graves v. Brandstar, Inc.
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
5/9/23, Judge Newsom
Topics: Americans With Disabilities Act; Family Medical Leave Act; Summary Judgment
This case arose from Florida. The coordinated care for her ill father, who lived in Pennsylvania. In May, she was notified that her father required emergency brain surgery to attempt to remove a cancerous tumor. She notified the employer by email that she was flying to PA in the morning, and she was gone for two business days and two weekend days.
Weeks later, the company discovered that Graves had clocked in on the two days she was gone. They did not inform her of any right to Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave. They asked her to correct her timecard.
She also emailed the employer to pitch a show idea and request time to film the conversion of her garage into a living space for her father for a home makeover show focusing on veterans like her father.
The company asked her to transition to freelance work, she declined, the company denied that the change had to do with her father, and then they terminated her. Her history as an employee was imperfect.
Graves sued under the FMLA for failing to offer medical leave and also under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for associational discrimination. The Southern District of Florida granted summary judgment to the employer, and Graves appealed.
On appeal, Graves argued that the employer violated her right to notice of the right, under the FMLA, to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for her father. Graves was definitely eligible for FMLA protection, having worked for more than 12 months prior to her father’s surgery.
Employers have to provide notice of FMLA rights if 1) the employee requests leave or the employer acquires knowledge that an employer’s leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason. The court agreed that there was evidence that triggered the employer’s obligation to inform Graves of her FMLA rights.
The court, however, disagreed that there was any evidence that the failure to inform her caused her harm. She was given the leave to travel to PA and even accidentally paid for it.
In regard to the subsequent request to use a film crew to film her converting part of her home to house her father, that message did not actually request time off. She did ask to be staffed locally, but that was not a request for leave; it was a request for accommodation. There was no reason for the employer to interpret her pitching a show as a request for leave. Instead, it was a request for more work.
(NOTE: Frighteningly, the court drops footnote 2 where they clarify that a plan to drive her father down from PA—announced before the firing—did not result in harm because she was fired three months before the planned trip. This seems to open a large loophole where the employer can simply fire the person seeking leave before the date of the proposed leave.)
In regard to the ADA claim, a plaintiff can prevail by showing she is associated with someone with significant medical needs. Assuming Graves showed a prima facie case of discrimination, the employer offered ample evidence that she was a bad employee based on her work record. She had no evidence that the reasons for termination were pretextual. The mere temporal proximity between her father’s problems and her termination is not enough.