By Kelsey Hyde
On October 31, 2016, in the civil case of Masoud Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissing plaintiff’s claims of unlawful retaliation by his employer. Because plaintiff failed to sufficiently rebut the defendant employer’s reasoning and factual support for their actions against him, the Fourth Circuit found the District Court had correctly granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed plaintiff’s claims.
Sharif’s Claims and Subsequent Proceedings
On March 14, 2014, Masoud Sharif and his wife, both employees of United Airlines, Inc. at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., embarked on a planned vacation to South Africa. Their trip was scheduled to last until April 4, as a result of their successful bidding and receipt of approximately 20 days off, but, in the midst of those 20 days, Sharif was still assigned to work March 30 to 31 at customer service back in Washington, D.C. Through the United Airlines “shift-swap” website, he was able to cover one day, but was still scheduled to work March 30.
However, back in 2009, Sharif had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, resulting in his qualifying for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et. seq. (2012), in order to handle his panic attacks. On the morning of March 30, the day of the shift he had unsuccessfully tried to cover, Sharif called from South Africa to take medical leave under the FMLA. Sharif had not made any prior reservations for a return flight to the U.S., but did fly to Italy with his wife the next day, and did eventually depart for Washington on April 3, arriving back just in time for his wife’s shift.
The circumstances of Sharif’s FMLA leave, coincidentally falling on the only day he was scheduled to work in the midst of planned time-off, did not go unnoticed. Instead, this incident, along with another prior instance in September 2013 where Sharif took FMLA leave under similar circumstances, inspired an investigation. Sharif was interviewed by a member of Human Resources and gave a series of inconsistent answers regarding his “unsuccessful efforts” to return home in time for his shift. As a result, senior management was notified that Sharif was untruthful in his answers, and changed his story many times, which, ultimately, led to the conclusion that he never intended to make it back in time to work his shift. Other evidence in employment and travel records also corroborated this conclusion. After being suspended without pay, Sharif was notified that United Airlines planned to terminate him for fraudulently taking FMLA leave and for making dishonest representations during the subsequent investigation. Sharif retired under threat of termination in June 2014.
Challenging Employer Action as Retaliation in Violation of FMLA
The FMLA includes both a prescriptive element, guaranteeing substantive rights to employees who qualify, and a proscriptive limitation on employers, which makes it unlawful for employers to discharge employees for opposing employment practices that are unlawful under the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2615(a)(1), 2615(a)(2). The proscriptive limitation effectively provides plaintiff employees with an avenue to legally dispute retaliation by their employers.
The Fourth Circuit reviewed relevant Supreme Court and Circuit Court decisions to navigate the standards of law and burdens of proof applicable in this case. To succeed on retaliation claims, a plaintiff must show that (1) they engaged in protected activity, (2) the employer took adverse action against them, and (3) this adverse action was casually connected to the protected activity. Yashenko v. Harrah’s NC Casino Co., LLC, 446 F.3d 541, 551 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Cline v. Wal-Mart, 144 F.3d 294, 301 (4th Cir. 1998)). Thus, employer intent is especially relevant to such claims, and plaintiff can establish such intent by either direct evidence, or under the “burden-shifting framework” introduced by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. 411 U.S. 792, 800-06 (1973).
This burden-shifting framework entails: (a) plaintiff establishing a prima facie case of retaliation; (b) if successful, the burden shifts to the employer to provide some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action to rebut plaintiff’s prima facie case; (c) if successful, the burden shifts back to plaintiff to persuade fact-finders that employer’s explanation in (b) was a “pretext” for discrimination. Id. at 802-04. This third element requires plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence such that a reasonable fact-finder could conclude the employer’s reasons were impermissible.
In addition to these standards specific to the FMLA and retaliation claims, the summary judgment standard further requires that a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, in this case Sharif. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (2016).
Legal Contentions on Appeal
Sharif filed suit against United Airlines for retaliation in violation of the proscriptive provision of FMLA, arguing they threatened to terminate him for taking FMLA leave and that their proffered reasons were a mere pretext for this discriminatory act. The District Court found that Sharif failed to create an issue of triable fact regarding United Airline’s explanation for his threatened discharge as allegedly pretextual, and awarded summary judgment to the defendant employer, dismissing Sharif’s claims. On appeal, Sharif contends that he has produced sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.
Plaintiff’s Failed to Create a Triable Issue of Fact
Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit was unpersuaded by plaintiff’s argument that United Airlines’ actions were a pretext for impermissible discriminatory conduct under the FMLA. The Court considered the evidence as a whole, in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, yet could not find any cause for dispute over the logic and reasoning of United Airline’s conclusion. On the contrary, they found all evidence supported the nondiscriminatory motivations for their action against Sharif, based on the facts available from Sharif’s employment records, his noted FMLA leave, and the results of the subsequent investigation. Additionally, the Court found that Sharif’s inconsistent narrative throughout the investigation, as well as his failure to provide any documentation or verification of his own version of the events, did not effectively dispute the evidence proffered by United Airlines, or offer any alternative, such that a fact-finder could reasonably rule in favor of him. Thus, he failed to meet his burden to provide sufficient evidence and create a genuine dispute of material fact regarding his employer’s motives as pretext.
Affirming Dismissal and Defending the Purpose of the FMLA
Based on their analysis of the case under applicable Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims. In doing so, the court also highlighted the fundamental importance of the FMLA, allowing employees to take leave for legitimate family needs and medical reasons without threatening job security, and emphasized that fraudulent invocations and dishonest representations for claims under the FMLA greatly compromise this Congressional goal. As such, their decision reflected the importance in providing employers the ability to sanction employees who threaten to abuse this statute and undermine its purpose.