New York Case Law Update - Second Circuit Confirms "Motivating Factor" Standard for FMLA Retaliation Claims


In Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, Inc., the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee alleging unlawful retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), must prove that her exercise of FMLA rights was a "motivating factor" in an employer's adverse employment action.  The "motivating factor" standard is a lower standard of causation than the "but for" standard typically used in the context of employment claims.

The FMLA provides broad job protections to eligible employees who need to take time away from work to deal with serious medical conditions for themselves or family members.  The FMLA also prohibits employers from interfering with, or retaliating against, employees who exercise (or attempt to exercise) their FMLA rights.

In Woods, the Second Circuit, agreeing with the Third Circuit, determined that an employee alleging unlawful retaliation under the FMLA need not show that the adverse employment action would have not been made "but for" the employee's exercise of FMLA rights (e.g. the "but for" causation standard).  Rather, the employee must establish her claim by a lower standard -- that the employee's exercise of FMLA rights was a "motivating factor" in the adverse employment action.  In other words, even if the employer had other reasons for taking an adverse employment action against the employee, if the employee's exercise of her FMLA rights motivated the adverse employment decision,  that decision would be unlawful and expose the employer to liability. In reaching this holding, the Second Circuit deferred to a Department of Labor regulation which states that the "motivating factor" standard rather than the typical "but for" standard used in the employment context is the applicable standard for FMLA retaliation claims.

Woods serves as a strong reminder to employers of the need to establish thorough and compliant employment policies and procedures concerning employees' family and medical leave rights and the administrative handling of employee family and medical leave.  

Please contact us at (646) 503-5358 or if you have any questions about the FMLA or other employee leave obligations applicable to your business.