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Threat of Violence Overrides FMLA Retaliation Claim

Tate Clark suffered from migraines. As a customer service agent for Southwest Airlines, he was entitled to and received intermittent FMLA leave over a four-year period. Then, a co-worker spotted him looking for trench coats online. The co-worker asked whether he planned on ordering one. Mr. Clark responded to her: “No. I wish they made it in black... so I could bring in my shotgun.” This co-worker reported the comment to her supervisors, also alerting them to the fact that he had mentioned his gun at work to her before. Southwest conducted an investigation and Mr. Clark was fired for violating Southwest’s zero tolerance for workplace violence.
Mr. Clark sued Southwest Airlines, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. His last intermittent leave had been taken just two days after the gun incident. He was fired within two weeks of his leave. He argued that the timing of his termination was suspect.
A district court in Texas dismissed the case and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. While the timing of his termination could be evidence of a causal connection, it was weak. Moreover, Southwest had shown a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his firing and Mr. Clark was unable to show that the reason was pretextual.