10th Circuit Denies Motion in FMLA Interference Claim

After William Gaige was fired from his job while on leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), he sued his former employer, SAIA Motor Freight Line, LLC, for interference with his FMLA-created rights. During the litigation, the district court made three rulings based on Federal Rules of Evidence that Gaige claims were abuses of discretion. On these grounds, Gaige sought reversal of the district court’s denial of his Motion for New Trial. The 10th Circuit found that the district court acted within its discretion in finding that the proposed evidence’s unfair prejudice substantially outweighed its probative value.

The case is Gaige v. SAIA Motor Freight Line, LLC.

Weeks before losing his job, Gaige broke his ankle playing soccer. But weeks before that, SAIA had started investigating him for a conflict of interest. On October 21, 2013, after a caller left an anonymous tip on SAIA’s hotline, SAIA began investigating Gaige for a conflict of interest. The caller accused Gaige of using his SAIA contacts to generate business for a side venture. Initially, SAIA’s internal-audit group conducted the investigation without involving Gaige’s supervisors. SAIA planned to continue investigating Gaige during its November audit of the Oklahoma City terminal, where Gaige worked.

On November 15, 2013, Gaige broke his ankle playing soccer. Gaige applied for FMLA leave after his regional manager insisted he take it. On December 12, 2013, he received approval and his leave dated back to November 25, 2013.

Meanwhile, between Gaige’s injury and his FMLA-leave approval, SAIA continued investigating Gaige. SAIA discovered that a small transport company named Batak, LLC was registered to Gaige’s wife. Although SAIA is a national freight transporter, SAIA determined that Batak conflicted with some of its operations. SAIA concluded that the conflict violated company policy and was grounds for termination. On December 18, 2013, though Gaige was on FMLA leave, SAIA fired him.

Gaige sued SAIA for interference with his FMLA rights. Before trial, SAIA moved to exclude evidence of past discrimination from former SAIA employees. The district court excluded (1) testimony from Theodies Nelson, a former SAIA employee who had earlier taken FMLA leave; (2) references to the case Gray v. SAIA Motor Freight Line, Inc., a workers’-compensation suit that SAIA lost; and (3) testimony about SAIA’s FMLA policies from David Crites, a former SAIA employee who worked in SAIA’s Indiana terminal.

Gaige introduced evidence to disprove that SAIA fired him for a conflict of interest. Gaige testified that Batak’s operations differed from SAIA’s. A former SAIA employee from SAIA’s Salt Lake City terminal testified that SAIA fired him after he had taken FMLA leave. He also testified that SAIA had a policy of disciplining employees who take FMLA leave.

In its jury instructions, the district court stated that Gaige had satisfied elements of his interference claim and that SAIA had the burden of proving that Gaige’s termination was unrelated to his FMLA leave. The jury returned a verdict for SAIA, and Gaige filed a Motion for New Trial, arguing that the district court’s three evidentiary exclusions made the trial unfair. The district court denied the motion.

On appeal, Gaige argued that the district court erroneously excluded past-discrimination evidence. He sought reversal of the district court’s denial of his Motion for New Trial on this ground. The 10th Circuit concluded that the district court acted within its discretion in excluding the evidence because it properly applied factors to determine the evidence’s relevance.

This case can serve as a reminder that taking FMLA leave does not protect employees from being fired for cause.

About John Garner

John Garner has over thirty five years of experience in employee benefits. He specializes in compliance, health care reform, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). He helps clients with life, health, and disability benefits, cost containment, flexible benefits, and claim consulting.

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