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Employers Bear Burden of Proof in FMLA Reinstatement Disputes

Posted: March 22, 2011 Filed under: Case Law, Employment Law

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a St. Patrick’s Day ruling favoring employees in reinstatement disputes arising under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The court noted that its decision is supported by case law from the Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits. Florida is part of the Eleventh Circuit.

Sanders v. City of Newport involved a former employee’s claim that her employer interfered with her rights under the FMLA by denying her reinstatement without cause. The district court instructed the jury that the burden was on the former city employee to prove that she was denied reinstatement without “reasonable cause.” The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding the instruction was erroneous and not harmless.

In ruling as it did, the Ninth Circuit noted that, under the FMLA, Department of Labor regulations, and the court’s own precedent, the burden of proof was on the employer to show that it had a legitimate reason to deny an employee reinstatement. Neither the FMLA nor labor department regulations reference a “reasonable cause” standard for interfering with an employee’s right to reinstatement.

In an unique twist, the case also involved equitable claims under state law. On the same evidence heard by the jury, the district court ruled that the employer violated the employee’s rights under state law and awarded damages. The Ninth Circuit reversed that ruling, too, explaining that “where legal claims tried by the jury and equitable claims tried by the court are ‘based on the same set of facts, the Seventh Amendment requires the trial judge to follow the jury’s implicit or explicit factual determinations.’” Because of the error in the district court’s FMLA jury instruction and verdict form, the court of appeals could not determine what factual findings the jury might have made with regard to the employee’s FMLA claim under a proper instruction.

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