• Middle Tennessee FMLA Decision on recent Truck Driver's Case
  • July 23, 2014 | Authors: J. Gregory Grisham; Anthony M. Noel
  • Law Firm: Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC - Nashville Office
  • Truck Driver's Family Medical and Leave Act Retaliation and Interference Claims Survive Summary Judgment, but state law retaliatory discharge claim is dismissed.

    A District Judge in the Middle District of Tennessee recently ruled that a terminated truck driver’s retaliation and interference claims under the Family Medical and Leave Act (“FMLA”) can proceed to trial finding the existence of a disputed issue of material fact on the issue of whether adequate notice was given. However, the district court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim under Tennessee law finding that it was preempted by the FMLA. Cantrell v. R.E. West, Inc., 2014 WL 3511046 (M.D. Tenn. July 14, 2014).

    Background Facts

    The plaintiff Douglas Cantrell (“Cantrell”) was employed as a truck driver and trainer by defendant R.E. West, Inc. Co-defendant Bob West is the President and CEO of the defendant company.  Cantrell on March 31, 2013, while on an assignment in Washington State, learned his mother had been hospitalized.  Two days later on Tuesday April 2, Cantrell learned his mother’s condition had worsened. As a result, Cantrell informed the company that day about his mother’s deteriorating health condition and requested to leave his truck in Washington to fly home to Tennessee.

    A conference call was set up on the afternoon of April 2 between Cantrell, Bob West and two other company officials.  According to Cantrell, West was unhappy with his request to leave the truck in Washington, but agreed to permit Cantrell to fly home.  After a company official checked flight schedules and found that a flight would not get him home until the next evening on April 3rd, it was decided that Cantrell would drive his truck home.  Later that day, Cantrell was able to find a flight that would get him home the morning of the 3rd.  Cantrell contacted the defendant’s human resources director, Donna Tomlinson, and advised her he would be flying back to Tennessee on the earlier flight.  Tomlinson allegedly told Cantrell she was disappointed in his decision.  At no point was Cantrell advised he would be terminated for leaving the truck.

    Cantrell was able to speak with his mother upon his return, but she then lapsed into a coma and died on April 7.  West directed that Cantrell’s employment be terminated on April 5. The reason for termination listed on the separation notice was abandoning his truck and trainee in Washington State. The employer took the position that a provision in its drivers’ manual prohibited drivers from abandoning a trip without notice of approval.

    The Court’s Decision

    The district court began its analysis by noting the two distinct legal theories advanced by Cantrell under the FMLA. In order to recover for interference (entitlement) with his rights under the FMLA, Cantrell had to show:

    • He was an eligible employee;
    • His employer was an employer within the meaning of the FMLA;
    • He was entitled to take FMLA leave;
    • He provided notice of his intent to take leave; and
    • The employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.

    With respect to his claim for retaliation, Cantrell had to show:

    • He was engaged in an activity protected under the FMLA;
    • His employer knew that he was exercising FMLA rights;
    • His employer took an adverse employment action after learning of his exercise of FMLA rights; and
    • There was a causal connection between his exercise of FMLA rights and the adverse employment action.

    The district court noted that the key disputed issue was whether Cantrell had provided adequate notice under the FMLA which must be given as soon as practicable when the need for leave is not foreseeable. 29 C.F.R.§825.303(a). The court further noted that under established case law the “facts and circumstances of each individual case” must be considered to determine whether proper notice was given. Cavin v. Honda of America Mfg., Inc., 346 F. 3d 713, 724 (6th Cir. 2003).  After reviewing the parties’ contentions, the court concluded that summary judgment was not appropriate. The court found the existence of a disputed issue of fact as to whether proper notice was given and stated the notice requirement is an essential element of a claim for interference under the FMLA.  Moreover, since Cantrell’s retaliation claim requires that he prove he engaged in an activity protected under the FMLA and since there was a factual dispute over whether notice was proper and the cause of Cantrell’s termination, summary judgment was not appropriate. The court denied Cantrell’s motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liquidated damages because of the disputes over notice and the cause of Cantrell’s discharge.

    Finally, the court addressed Cantrell’s Tennessee common law retaliatory discharge claim in light of the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The court found that the state law claim was preempted by the FMLA because of the statute’s “comprehensive remedial scheme to redress violations for statutory rights.” McAllister v. Qualify Mobile X-Ray Services, Inc., 2012 WL 3042972 (M.D. Tenn. 2012).

    The district court’s ruling in Cantrell illustrates the dangers associated with an adverse employment action close in time to an event that would appear to trigger FMLA leave as well as the fact specific nature of the FMLA notice requirement where the need for leave is unforeseeable.  Employers should always exercise caution before taking an adverse employment action against an FMLA eligible employee who has provided notice of the need for leave particularly in situations where the need for leave was not foreseeable.