Federal Court Allows Employees to Proceed on Discrimination Claim Against Former Employer
A recent Federal district court decision, Porter v. Five Star Quality Care-MI, LLC , was a big victory for employees.
The Court enabled a group of former nursing home employees to move forward in their Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) retaliation claim against the current and former owners of the nursing home from which the employees were terminated. This is significant because not only did the court allow the case to proceed beyond summary judgment, but allowed the employees to maintain their suit against their former employer, even though the new employer actually fired them.
The seven plaintiffs were employed by a nursing home in Farmington, MI, owned by Five Star Quality Care-MI, LLC (“Five Star”). Only a day or two after the home was sold to White Pine Rehabilitation & Healthcare of Farmington (“White Pine”), White Pine, the new owner, terminated six of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs argued that White Pine acted in concert with Five Star in terminating them in retaliation for taking medical leave in the past. Such retaliation is unlawful under the FMLA.
The key issue in this case was whether the plaintiffs would be allowed to proceed in their claim against Five Star, because Five Star was no longer their employer at the time of their termination. The Court said yes and explained that the plaintiffs had two possible theories under which their FMLA retaliation claim against their former employer could be viable.
The first is a “joint employment” theory. The Court found it is possible that even though Five Star had sold the nursing home and no longer employed the plaintiffs, “Five Star continued to exercise some degree of control over these employees by participating in or somehow influencing White Pine’s decisions as to which of these employees to rehire and how long to retain those who were rehired.” If this were true, plaintiffs could succeed in a claim against Five Star (in addition to White Pine).
The second potentially viable theory is based on how the term “employee” is defined in the FMLA. Because courts have found that individuals may bring FMLA claims against their former employers, the plaintiffs in this case could be successful in their claim against Five Star if “they allege and produce evidence that Five Star retaliated against Plaintiffs’ exercise of rights protected under the FMLA by somehow discouraging White Pine from rehiring and retaining Plaintiffs as employees[.]”
This was an excellent outcome for the employees because it allows them to proceed to further discovery. Because the case was in its early stages when defendants sought to have it dismissed, plaintiffs had not yet had the opportunity to take depositions and get access to documents that could provide them with valuable evidence regarding how the employment decisions at issue were made. This case gives them the opportunity to do so.