Professional Service Agreement

Employee Fired While on FMLA Leave Due to Mask Mandate Plausibly Alleges Interference Claim

February 10, 2022

A Tyson Fresh Meats employee who, as a result of a lung condition that affected his breathing, took extended Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave after Tyson implemented a mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic, plausibly pleaded a FMLA interference claim based on his absence-related termination. Denying Tyson’s motion to dismiss, a federal court in Illinois found his allegations that he was twice approved for FMLA leave sufficiently pled his entitlement to leave under the FMLA.

Doctor’s notes.After Tyson implemented the mask requirement, the employee provided a note from his doctor, dated April 6, 2020, advising that it was in his best interests not to wear a mask at work and anticipating that he could return to work in two weeks. The employee then applied for FMLA leave. On April 20, the employee provided a second doctor’s note indicating he could not return to work for an additional four weeks.

FMLA leave.In early May, Unum, which contracts with Tyson to process FMLA requests, retroactively approved the employee’s first leave request, authorizing leave from April 6 through May 29. When the employee applied to extend the leave, Unum issued a second retroactive approval on June 29, authorizing leave from May 30 through June 28.

Terminated.Just days before his leave was to expire, HR told the employee he needed to return to work. In response, he reminded HR of his leave extension request. On June 29, he was fired, purportedly for unauthorized absences during June.

Allegations. Moving to dismiss the employee’s FMLA interference claim, Tyson argued that he did not “allege any facts demonstrating that his physician was treating him for [his] breathing ailment” and his conclusory allegations he was being treated for the condition were not enough to state a viable claim. Disagreeing, the court found his factual allegations indicated that he had a lung condition and that the condition affected his breathing. He also had a relatively recent diagnosis from 2017 and he alleged he visited his doctor twice in April 2020. “While discovery may vindicate Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff’s physician ‘did little more than issue two ‘get out of work’ notes at Plaintiff’s request,’ an inference that Plaintiff obtained examinations, evaluations, or other types of treatment at those visits is just as readily drawn,” the court stated.

It also found persuasive the employee’s assertion that because he alleged both his FMLA requests were approved, he sufficiently alleged facts showing Tyson admitted he suffered from a serious health condition. Though he could have offered more substantial support for this argument, he sufficiently pled his entitlement to leave under the FMLA. “If nothing else, the allegation that Plaintiff’s requests were successful prompts the reasonable inference he qualified for benefits.” Further, observed the court, because his FMLA leave was twice approved, it was similarly difficult for Tyson “to effectively argue that it is not on notice as to the nature of the claims against it.”