Timeout! Don’t Let Sports Analogies Get You Flagged For FMLA Interference

Case in PointOn the opening day of the NFL season, we pause today to recognize the football-related expressions that have seeped into the workplace. We ask employees to “quarterback” a project. We develop a “game plan” for the big meeting. We praise workers who are “on the ball.” But as a new court ruling shows, supervisors who misuse sports analogies at work could find themselves benched in a federal courtroom …

Case in Point: L. Ronald Brown, a sales agent in Florida, always exceeded his sales goals. But his numbers took a hit during the 2008 economic meltdown. Then, the next year, he began experiencing flu-like symptoms and was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, which is a type of herpes virus.

Brown’s doctor gave him a note to take one month off work. When Brown delivered the note, his supervisor allegedly responded that Brown “could not afford to take off an entire month” and that, if he did, he could lose his job.

Brown claimed his supervisor said that if the symptoms came back he should “just push through,” like an athlete with an injury. The supervisors also told Brown that, “You don’t get to sit on the bench while the rest of the team is out there and you’re resting.”

Brown’s leave request was eventually approved but he only took two weeks of leave because he feared losing his job. Soon after he returned, Brown received a mediocre performance review and was terminated with 11 other employees in a reduction in force.

FMLA Compliance D

Brown sued for interference with his FMLA rights, citing the supervisor’s actions and comments. The company shrugged off the supervisor’s remarks, saying the sports analogies were innocent and merely used to motivate Brown, who was a former football player.

What happened? The court ruled in favor of Brown and sent the case to the jury. It said Brown could prove an FMLA interference claim because “such interferences not only include an employer’s refusal to authorize FMLA leave but also efforts to discourage an employee from taking leave.” Touchdown Brown!  (Brown v. Lassiter-Ware, Inc., M.D. Fla., 8/16/13)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

  1. Don’t fumble (or mumble). The supervisor told Brown that he didn’t get to sit on the bench while the rest of the team was playing. Oh yes, Brown does because he’s entitled to FMLA leave!
  2. Don’t get flagged for interference.  In this case, the company properly granted FMLA leave, but still got flagged for interference because of what the manager said on the sidelines. Today, it’s not enough to just make the right call. Your supervisors (coaches) have to follow your game plan. 
  3. Don’t tackle this alone. Make sure that all managers and supervisors receive FMLA training to increase awareness so that they can be best suited up to avoid FMLA lawsuits.