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Appeals court reinstates auto parts worker’s FMLA suit

Posted On: Aug. 16, 2022 2:04 PM CST


A federal appeals court has reinstated Family Medical Leave Act litigation filed by a worker who was fired for using Facebook Messenger to inform his employer he was taking the leave.

Kasey Roberts was fired by his employer, Gestamp West Virginia LLC, an auto parts manufacturer that operated a facility in South Charleston, West Virginia, after he informed his supervisor by Facebook Messenger that he was taking FMLA leave because of a recurring infection from an emergency appendectomy, according to Monday’s ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in Kasey A. Roberts v. Gestamp West Virginia.

After his termination, Mr. Roberts filed suit in U.S. District Court in Charleston, West Virginia, charging FMLA interference and retaliation and wrongful discharge under West Virginia law.

The district court granted Gestamp summary judgment in the case. It held that Mr. Roberts’ FMLA interference claim failed because he did not use the company’s call-in line as required to request the leave, and no unusual circumstances justified his doing so.

In overturning that ruling, a three-judge appeal court panel held a jury should decide whether Facebook Mesenger was an acceptable medium to notify Gestamp of his absence, as well as whether the content of his notice satisfied his FMLA obligations.

Mr. Roberts’ Facebook messages with his supervisor “shows he routinely discussed his appendicitis and resulting hospital stays over that medium,” the ruling said. 

“What’s more, Gestamp conceded that Roberts’s use of Facebook Messenger to notify (his supervisor) about his first surgery was acceptable because it was an emergency,” the ruling said.

There is conflicting evidence as to whether Gestamp fired him after he was hospitalized and had provided adequate notice of FMLA leave, the panel said, in holding his FMLA interference claim should also go to a jury.

The panel upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Mr. Roberts’ retaliation charges, ruling he had not offered any evidence that “improper animus” motivated the decision to fire him.

Plaintiff attorney Richard W. Walters, with Shaffer & Shaffer PLLC in Charleston, said the ruling “didn’t make new law,” but clarified the FMLA. 

“This doesn’t mean that employees have free rein to start using Facebook to start communicating their FMLA needs,” he said.

It was an instance, “where the supervisor had extensively communicated through Facebook,” thus establishing a practice of using the medium, which meant the employer could not then say it could not be used. 

Gestamp’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

In July, a federal appeals court reinstated a disability discrimination claim filed by a call center employee who was terminated after seeking a reduced schedule under the FMLA.