If I had a dollar for every time I reminded a client that "no good deed goes unpunished," my childrens’ college funds would be flush and I’d be planning to retire early. The recent case of Terwilliger v. Howard Mem. Hosp. (W.D. Ark. 1/27/2011) reminds us that employees will often attempt to ensure that "no good deed goes unpunished" and employers are often "darned if they do and darned if they don’t."
Fellow bloggers have comprehensively covered Terwilliger (See Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, The FMLA Blog, FMLA Insights, Employment Law Matters) and so only a brief summary is necessary. In that case, Terwilliger was out on FMLA leave for a back-related injury. She testied (which the court was required to accept as true) that her supervisor called her weekly while on leave to inquire when she was going to return to work. As a result, she felt pressured by these calls to return to work. Because of this testimony, the Court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment finding that a fact-issue existed on Plaintiff’s claims that these calls chilled her willingness to and interferred with the exercise of FMLA rights. This is probably the technically correct ruling at the summary judgment stage, but at trial I suspect a different story will be told where the jury, unlike the court, will not be required to accept the plaintiff’s version as true.
At trial, I suspect the supervisor will testify that, if she called at all, she was merely calling to check on how the plaintiff was doing and to check on her well-being. Should that be illegal? Imagine, if the supervisor never called to check on the employee. The employee can then complain, "They never even bothered to call to see how I was doing." Instead, because the supervisor called to check on the employee, she complains that her FMLA rights were interferred with. Terwilliger teaches that employers cannot always predict how their actions will be spun by creative lawyers representing employees. Instead, supervisors should ensure they follow the law; treat employees consistent with the employer’s policies; and in a manner in which they would want to be treated. Leave it to the company lawyers to take the spin out of the employee’s efforts to punish good deeds.