Co-authored by Jason F. Clouser.

Plaintiff Gwendolyn Donald, a former restaurant assistant manager, filed a suit against an Arby’s franchise owner claiming that the franchise terminated her employment in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Michigan’s Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCR). The district court granted summary judgment for defendant Sybra, Inc. (Sybra).

Donald experienced a number of serious health problems that required her to take leave for treatment. During one such period, her employer concluded that she had stolen money from a cash register. When Donald returned from leave, her employer confronted her with the theft accusation and then terminated her employment.

Donald argued that the employer’s actions gave rise to both FMLA interference and retaliation claims. The district court assumed for the sake of argument that Donald made out a prima facie case for improper interference with her FMLA rights. The district court, however, went on to find that Donald could not prove that Sybra’s stated reason for her termination – the alleged theft – was pretextual.

In affirming the district court’s decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit clarified that courts should apply the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test to FMLA interference claims as well as to FMLA retaliation claims: once a plaintiff shows that an employer interfered with the exercise of FMLA rights, the burden shifts to the employer to show that the adverse action was unrelated to the employee engaging in protected FMLA activity; the employee then may show that the employer’s stated reason is “pretextual.”

The Sixth Circuit also found that Donald’s ADA and PWDCRA claims failed because she did not produce sufficient evidence demonstrating that anyone perceived her as being unable to engage in a major life activity.

Donald v. Sybra, Inc., No. 10-2153 (6th Cir. Jan. 17, 2012).