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Pro-employer FMLA jury verdict reversed

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A federal appeals court has reversed a jury verdict in favor of the employer in a Family Medical Leave Act case, stating the jury was given the incorrect standard to be used in determining whether the law had been violated.

Cassandra Woods was terminated from her position as a counselor at Brooklyn, New York-based START Treatment & Recovery Centers Inc. in 2012, allegedly for poor performance, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in Cassandra Woods, Tina Hinton v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers Inc., Addiction Research and Treatment Corp.

Ms. Woods, however, who suffers from severe anemia, said she was terminated in retaliation for taking leave under the FMLA. At trial, a Brooklyn jury decided in START’s favor in the case, and Ms. Woods appealed.

Ms. Woods contended on appeal the judge had given the jury incorrect instructions. The judge had told the jury Ms. Woods needed to demonstrate that her FMLA level was the “but for” cause of her termination, that she would not have been terminated if she had not taken FMLA leave.

“If a jury finds against Woods, but it was wrongfully instructed in the law, can its verdict still stand? In this case, our answer is no,” said a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.

The panel said it agreed with Ms. Woods that she only had to establish the FMLA leave was a motivating factor in her termination, which is a less demanding standard.

The panel cited a U.S. Department of Labor rule that interpreted the statute in this way. That rule “is neither arbitrary nor capricious. Instead, it reflects the well-reasoned judgment of the executive officer charged with enforcing the rights granted to this country’s employees,” said the ruling.

The panel also ruled Ms. Woods was “unduly prejudiced” by the admission of adverse inferences based on her invocation of her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination at her deposition, which was in response to questions about a prior incident in which she was asked about wrongdoing.

The ruling cited that, along with the causation factor, in vacating the District Court’s judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings.