By: Latiqua M. Liles
In one of the first lawsuits filed since the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”), a Pennsylvania employee is claiming FFCRA interference and retaliation against her former employer, an airline headquartered in eastern Pennsylvania. Under the FFCRA, effective April 1, 2020, employees are entitled to, among other things, job-protected leave to care for a child whose school is closed due to COVID-19.
Plaintiff, Stephanie Jones, was hired as the Director of Revenue for Defendant, Eastern Airlines, LLC, on October 1, 2019. Ms. Jones was subsequently terminated on March 27, 2020 after requesting leave under the FFCRA to care for her 11-year-old son, whose school had closed due to COVID-19. On April 16, 2020, Ms. Jones, filed a six-count Complaint in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Eastern Airlines, Human Resources Consultant, Joseph Marotta, and Chief Executive Officer, Steve Harsft, alleging various FFCRA violations.
According to the Complaint, on multiple occasions prior to the FFCRA’s effective date, Ms. Jones expressed that she had childcare issues due to COVID-19-related school closures, and requested a discussion of her options, to no avail. On March 23, 2020, Ms. Jones alleges she had a meeting with Mr. Marotta via phone, wherein Ms. Jones inquired about her potential leave eligibility under the FFCRA. The following day, Ms. Jones formally requested FFCRA leave in an email to Mr. Marotta, copying Mr. Harfst. In his response email, Mr. Marotta was openly hostile, stating “As I mentioned yesterday, the new laws are there as a safety net for employees not as a hammer to force management into making decisions which may not be in the best interest of the company or yourself.” Ms. Jones’ leave request remained unanswered.
On March 27, 2020, three days after Ms. Jones’ formal request to take FFCRA leave, she was terminated via phone call by Mr. Marotta. According to the Complaint, Mr. Marotta stated in that phone call that these are “unprecedented times,” and that it was “in the best interest of the parties to part ways.” Mr. Marotta also allegedly alluded to “conflict” between Ms. Jones and others at the company as Eastern Airlines’ basis for terminating Ms. Jones’ employment, but did not get into specifics about the alleged “conflicts,” stating only that Mr. Harfst and Ken Johnson, Vice President of Commercial, each confirmed that there was conflict. Ms. Jones denied the existence of any conflict.
Ms. Jones’ Complaint includes claims for: FFCRA Interference against Eastern Airlines; FFCRA Violations against Mr. Marotta and Mr. Harfst; and FFCRA Retaliation against Eastern Airlines, Mr. Marotta, and Mr. Harfst. If successful, the FFCRA provides for penalties available to employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), and/or the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), including monetary damages such as back-pay, front-pay, liquidated damages, and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.
Genova Burns, LLC will continue to monitor and provide updates on the status of this case. For more information on employer compliance with the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group via email or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Counseling & Compliance Practice Group, vie email or at 973-533-0777.