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Choice To Terminate Employee While on FMLA Leave Leads to Questions About Motive

James Hester worked for Bell-Textron, Inc. (Bell) from August 1997 through December 2018. During his employment, he worked in a variety of positions including that of an engineer. He has epilepsy and glaucoma, which cause him to have seizures. He has had 5 grand mal seizures from 2014 to 2017. In addition, his wife had stage 4 cancer and needed care during her treatment. Hester began reporting to Vance Cribb in March 2017. In 2018, Cribb gave Hester a negative performance review, his first while employed at Bell. Four months later, Cribb issued Hester a final warning. Hester reacted so strongly to the final warning, security escorted him off of the property. Cribb told Hester to apply for the “employee assistance program” within the next 24 hours because of his medical issues. When Hester reached out to Human Resources, they recommended that he apply for short-term disability. Bell granted Hester leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). During that leave, Bell fired Hester, citing his poor performance review. Hester still had 5.4 weeks of FMLA leave for 2018.

Hester sued Bell for discrimination and interference with his rights under FMLA. After a federal district court dismissed the case, Hester appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In arguing against the discrimination claim, Bell asserted Hester could not show causation between the company’s decision to terminate him and his request for FMLA leave. The court considered the “temporal proximity” between the FMLA leave and Hester’s termination, noting that Hester did not need to show taking protected leave was the sole reason for his termination. The circuit court found Hester alleged a sufficient causal link between his request for leave and his termination. Bell waited to fire him until he was on FMLA leave, choosing not to fire him while he was having performance issues. The appellate court also reversed the dismissal of Hester’s FMLA interference claim. Bell argued the performance issues showed Hester would have been fired even if he did not take leave, proving he was not entitled to reinstatement. Because Cribb directed Hester to file for the employee assistance program and Human Resources helped Hester get FMLA approval instead of firing him, the court found Bell still had a right to job reinstatement.