NJ District Court Upholds Employee Termination After FMLA Leave
April 21, 2023 | By: Jessica B. Kim, Esq.
On March 31, 2023, in LeBlanc v. Thomas Jefferson University, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granted an employer’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing a former’s employee’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).
Carmelita LeBlanc began her career with Jefferson Health New Jersey (Jefferson Health) in May of 2015 as a Nurse Manager in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and the Intermediate Care Unit. During her employment with Jefferson Health, LeBlanc had a well-documented history of hostile and unprofessional work performance. Co-workers reported LeBlanc as being reactive, often yelling at other nurses and other team members. LeBlanc also had an inordinately high rate of employee turnover. Survey data demonstrating a lack of employee engagement and dissatisfaction was reflective of LeBlanc’s management skills.
In February 2020, LeBlanc was advised of a Human Resources (HR) investigation. Soon thereafter, LeBlanc met with HR to discuss a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) which included training and resources to improve LeBlanc’s communication and management skills. LeBlanc was scheduled to take a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) later in the month to undergo knee replacement surgery. LeBlanc and HR agreed that CAP training would commence after LeBlanc returned from her approved medical leave. When LeBlanc returned from her leave in May 2020 without restrictions, she met with HR weekly to discuss the CAP. LeBlanc completed the required training and successfully met the goals of the CAP. She and HR agreed that the CAP training was a positive experience.
In early July 2020, when LeBlanc became aware of patient abuse by a traveling ICU nurse, she failed to report it to her supervisor or HR because she was concerned about the potential risk to the nurse’s reputation and career. LeBlanc took the matter into her own hands and conducted her own investigation. When HR learned of the allegations, HR instructed LeBlanc to send the nurse home. LeBlanc ignored HR’s directive, risking patient safety, and allowed the travel nurse to remain on the hospital’s premises. The hospital determined that LeBlanc’s failure to appropriately report the patient abuse and subsequent poor judgments was in violation of hospital policy. LeBlanc was thereafter terminated for her mishandling of the matter.
LeBlanc filed a lawsuit against Jefferson Health alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the FMLA, the ADA and the NJLAD. LeBlanc claimed that her termination was in retaliation for her having taken an FMLA medical leave of absence. LeBlanc accused Jefferson Health of discriminatorily discharge on the basis of an actual and/or perceived physical disability in connection with her knee surgery. She alleged that the CAP training was discriminatory and in violation of federal law because it was designed to “set her up for failure.” The court dismissed LeBlanc’s allegations because the evidence demonstrated that her termination had nothing to do with the CAP training or medical leave. Moreover, LeBlanc herself had testified that the CAP training was a positive experience. The court determined that the CAP training was not arbitrary or retaliatory because the training was based on LeBlanc’s documented poor communication and management style.
District Court Decision
After extensive discovery, Jefferson Health filed a motion for summary judgment. The District Court granted the motion finding that there was no temporal proximity between LeBlanc’s medical leave and her termination to suggest a retaliatory animus. The court also found LeBlanc’s argument that the CAP demonstrated a pattern of retaliation unpersuasive. The court recognized that based on the record, the CAP was not arbitrary or unwarranted because LeBlanc had a documented history of employee complaints long before LeBlanc required knee surgery. Thus, it was clear that LeBlanc’s mishandling of the patient abuse complaint was not pretext for discrimination.
In LeBlanc, the employee’s hostile and unprofessional behavior was well-documented long before her medical leave. Even after successfully completing a CAP, Jefferson Health had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason to terminate LeBlanc’s employment. This case is once again illustrative of the vital importance of documenting work performance and properly administering an employee’s leave of absence.
For more information regarding this decision and how to properly administer leaves of absence to avoid liability, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., lead Partner of the firm’s Employment Law & Litigation practice via email here or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., lead Partner of the firm’s Human Resources Counseling & Compliance practice via email here, or call 973.533.0777.