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Case against Boeing for firing worker with migraines can proceed


A federal court has refused to dismiss a Family Medical Leave Act violation claim by a Boeing Co. employee who was terminated after she attempted to take FMLA leave for her migraines, stating there is evidence the company discriminated against her.

Jill Alexander's managers knew since at least 2000 that Ms. Alexander, who worked for the Chicago-based company from 1996 to 2013, suffered from migraines and missed work because of them, according to Monday's ruling by the U.S. District Court in Seattle in Jill Alexander v. Boeing Co..

From about 2009 through 2013, Ms. Alexander would telecommute sporadically because of her migraines, and they became more frequent beginning in 2013, according to the ruling. Meanwhile, beginning in April or May 2012, Boeing told its employees they could no longer work from home if they were sick or work partial or flexible days.

In June 2012, Ms. Alexander was told for the first time that she could apply for unpaid FMLA leave to cover absences caused by her migraines, and she took intermittent FMLA leave for the reminder of the year. However, because she was no longer allowed to work partial or flexible days, her absences were “far more frequent than they were before and her reviews suffered as a result,” said the ruling. She was also disciplined for what Boeing deemed to be “unexcused' absences, said the ruling.

On May 2, 2013, Ms. Alexander's supervisor and a human resources employee received notification she had applied for FMLA leave for April 29 through May 3. Despite this notification, they decided to terminate her for “job abandonment” because she had not come to work, and fired her on May 3, according to the ruling.

Ms. Alexander filed suit against the company in District Court in Seattle, charging violation of the FMLA as well as state law claims. There is “direct evidence that Boeing's decision to terminate the plaintiff was due to her absences from April 29 through May 2, 2013,” said the ruling by Judge Richard A. Jones.

“However, if those absences were covered by the FMLA, Boeing's consideration of those absences as a 'negative factor' in the termination decision violated the FMLA,” the ruling said.

The ruling also says that Boeing argued Ms. Alexander was ineligible for FMLA leave beginning Jan. 1, 2013, because she had not accrued the required 1,250 hours of service in the 12 months prior to the request leave.

However, while she does not dispute she worked only 1,203.2 official hours for the period, she contended she attained the required total by working at least 2.5 hours per week that were not included in her regular or overtime hours. Accordingly, said the ruling, “the court finds that genuine disputes of material fact exist” as to whether she was eligible for FMLA leave, said Judge Jones.

Ms. Alexander “has presented sufficient evidence that creates triable issue of fact regarding whether Boeing's discipline and termination for plaintiff's absenteeism (conduct resulting from her migraines) demonstrates discriminatory motive,” said the court, in denying Boeing's motion for summary judgment dismissing the case.

Commenting on the ruling, Jeff Nowak, a partner with law firm Franczek Radelet P.C. in Chicago, said, “Migraines can be deceptive for employers. Many employees deal with them and work through these kinds of headaches, so when an employee takes time off for a migraine headache, employers often don’t track those days as FMLA leave, even though the regulations clearly indicate that employers should.”

Experts have said that employers run the risk of noncompliance with the FMLA when employees request intermittent leave for chronic health conditions, including migraines.