FMLA Court Case Summary: Hall v The Ohio Bell Telephone Co
Hall v The Ohio Bell Telephone Co
When an employee takes FMLA leave, he or she may feel that their employer or manager is retaliating against them when they receive disciplinary action, are investigated or feel added scrutiny. However, any of these actions by an employer may be justified.
This is the case with Hall v The Ohio Bell Telephone Co., in which Stella Hall felt that she was heavily scrutinized after taking leave. The company ultimately fired her and Hall subsequently filed legal action.
Stella Hall started working for Ohio Bell Telephone Company in 2001 as a customer service representative. As a union worker at the company, Hall was entitled to paid FMLA leave under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.
In 2007, Hall suffered what was described as a “breakdown” on the job and she was later diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder. The doctor recommended that she be allowed to take up to 80 hours of FMLA leave each month. Ohio Bell approved the recommendation and Hall started taking leave in September 2007.
While employed by Ohio Bell, Hall composed and released two novels. On October 11, 2007, a local Cleveland newspaper printed an article on Hall titled, “STELLA, the hardest working author in Cleveland.” The article quoted Hall as saying publishing a book “takes hard work, perseverance, and determination... are you ready to give up your Saturday or Friday or take off of work to make your dream come true?”
In Nov 2007, Kimberly Miceli, the manager at Hall's Ohio Bell location, read a copy of the article and subsequently filed a “Request for Investigation” of Hall’s FMLA use with Ohio Bell’s Asset Protection Department, which investigates such claims.
On the request form, Miceli mentioned “suspicion of fraud” based on the article and the fact that Hall’s book promotion conveniently coincided with her FMLA leave request. Asset Protection did not perform an investigation because Hall was also using intermittent disability leave at the time and company policy mandated that the Disability Service Center conduct such investigations. Neither Miceli, nor the Disability Service Center followed up.
According to company records, Hall’s work performance began to deteriorate in 2008. In February, Hall obtained a two-day suspension for breaking the Ohio Bell/AT&T Code of Business Conduct for improper use of company time by staying on a call for 52 minutes without a customer on the line. Hall’s suspension letter mentioned that a future violation of the Code of Conduct will result in including dismissal and disciplinary action.
In Sep 2009, Ohio Bell placed Hall on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) due to poor performance and in October 2009 she received yet another written warning.
About this same time, management at Ohio Bell started to notice a pattern emerging in Hall’s leave requests. In 2008, Hall drained all 480 hours of her of FMLA leave by mid-year, but then worked the rest of the year with regular attendance. In early January 2009, Hall started taking regular FMLA leave again.
Due to Hall’s pattern of absence, Miceli again asked for an investigation by Asset Protection, which tracked Hall during her FMLA leave time. In August 2009, Asset Protection ended the investigation without finding proof of FMLA abuse. During 2009, Hall again used up her FMLA hours by mid-year, but once again worked the rest of the year with normal attendance.
From January to July 2010, Hall was assigned to supervisor Shaun Smith’s sales team. Hall claimed that at team meetings run by Smith, he made comments on FMLA-related attendance patterns toward Hall. Under Smith, Hall also had poor evaluations, which Hall said was due to Smith’s “nitpick[ing]” her performance. On Feb 26, 2010, Hall complained to employee relations manager Lee Jones that Smith was bothering her for taking FMLA leave. Hall said that Smith made statements such as, “if you continue to show a pattern, we will do something about it." Hall also claimed that when she called to report FMLA leave absences, Smith would occasionally make statements about those absences. Hall asked Jones to take her out of Smith’s team. Hall also asked for her complaint to remain anonymous.
Jones approached Smith’s supervisor, Freeze McCarter, regarding Smith’s behavior without bringing up Hall by name. McCarter affirmed that he was present at the team session that Smith made comments related to FMLA leave. McCarter has mentioned to Jones that Smith’s comments could have been more delicate and he would work with Smith to improve his communication skills. McCarter, however, did not express any problem that the comments were harassment or were directed at any selected worker.
Hall was on Smith’s sales team for approximately 6 months before she being transferred to another team on July 1st. On or about July 23rd, 2010, Hall received another written warning about her performance. She never claimed that her supervisor after Smith harassed her about her FMLA leave.
On Aug 30, 2010, Hall told Miceli that her “grandchild” Aria Smith had died and presented Miceli with a letter from the funeral home identifying Aria as Hall’s “grandchild” – even though Aria Smith was actually the daughter of her step-daughter.
Hall took two paid and two excused, unpaid days of leave as permitted by the collective bargaining agreement for individuals seeking funeral leave for the death of a biological grandchild. After being unable to find any obituary or other information on Aria Smith’s death, Miceli submitted an investigation request form to Asset Protection.
Launched on September 23, 2010, the investigation concluded that Hall had “intentionally engaged in fraud.” She was fired on November 9, 2010.
Appellate Court Case
In filing a case against Ohio Bell, Hall claimed that the time between her first request for leave and her employer’s subsequent investigation was evidence of retaliation for her taking FMLA leave. However, the court noted that Ohio Bell had just caused for investigating Hall’s leave in the form of the local newspaper article.
Hall also argued that Smith, her supervisor, harassed her for taking FMLA leave and this heightened scrutiny led to her dismissal.
The court pointed out that Hall had been working under a different supervisor for several months at the time of her dismissal, and there does not appear to be any evidence that Smith played a part in her dismissal.
The court also said that the time between the first leave request and initial investigation isn’t even the proper time frame for proximity with respect to FMLA retaliation. The court said the most accurate measure for proximity should be the time between Hall’s first request and her termination: a period of three years.
Based on the evidence presented, the court concluded that Ohio Bell investigated Hall in good faith and any added scrutiny by Smith was inconsequential since it didn’t play a role in her termination. Even in combination, these two potential factors aren’t enough, the court said.