Managing risksOften when an employee exercises rights under federal or Michigan laws, any subsequent discipline becomes the first domino in a subsequent retaliation claim. But a recent appeal from a Michigan federal district court shows that does not have to be.

Specifically, in Groening v. Glen Lake Cmty. Schools, the plaintiff, a school superintendent, claimed that she was constructively discharged in relation to taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

As we’ve explained in prior blog posts (Understanding Family Medical Leave Act Claims – One Statute, Two Possible Claims), an employer may violate the FMLA in one of two ways: (1) retaliating against an employee for exercising rights under the FMLA; and interfering with FMLA rights. Here, the plaintiff claimed her FMLA rights were violated under both theories.

Plaintiff essentially argued the defendant school district’s board members expressed concerns about her leave, conducted an audit designed to find evidence of wrongdoing, and was critical of her performance.

However, the court easily dispensed with both FMLA claims. The opinion goes through a lengthy explanation on why the evidence did not support plaintiff’s claim she was constructively discharged. In sum, plaintiff did not show her working conditions were objectively intolerable and that the school district deliberately created those conditions hoping she would quit.

On the remaining allegations plaintiff used to support her FMLA claim, here are key quotes for HR and managers to remember for evaluating potential employment law claims:

… this circuit has repeatedly held that an employer’s criticism of an employee does not amount to constructive discharge—especially when the employer’s criticism is limited to a few isolated incidents, as it was here.

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… employers are permitted to investigate their employees for wrongdoing, including wrongdoing related to protected leave.

Plaintiff also failed to show that the school board required her to work while she was recovering from surgery. The one instance where the board initiated contact with her, to request a breakdown of her time off, was a de minimis request that did “not rise to the level of actionable interference.”

Thus, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the school district on plaintiff’s FMLA violation claims.

Employment Law Compliance Does not Require Suspending Workplace Rules

All too often when an employee exercises rights under various federal or Michigan employment laws, employers feel handcuffed in disciplining or taking other adverse action against the employee. This concern – rightly so – stems from later being accused of retaliating or interfering with an employee’s rights.

However, the above case illustrates that employment law rights are not intended to insulate employees from nondiscriminatory workplace rules and operational decisions. Even so, it is important to carefully evaluate how your company treats and discipline employees who have made requests for FMLA leave or exercise rights under other employment laws to successfully defend against subsequent claims of retaliation or interference.

For more information about complying with federal or Michigan employment laws, contact attorney Jason Shinn. Since 2001, Mr. Shinn has worked with clients to comply with and litigate employment law disputes.