In Donald v. Sybra, Inc., Case No. 10-2153 (6th Cir. January 17, 2012). the Sixth Circuit recently clarified the proper standard of proof for FMLA interference claims by applying the burden-shifting framework announced in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

Plaintiff Gwendolyn Donald (“Donald”) worked as an assistant manager at an Arby’s restaurant in Michigan. Due to a number of serious health problems, Donald was required to take multiple medical leaves. Prior to Donald’s last medical leave, her employer started to notice irregularities in how customers were charged. After comparing the orders Donald took to the figures entered into her register, the employer suspected that Donald improperly discounted the orders and pocketed the difference. Donald took a short FMLA leave shortly before the investigation was complete and was terminated the day she returned to work. Donald sued, alleging various theories of discrimination and retaliation; most notably that her termination amounted to retaliation for taking FMLA leave and interference with her rights under the FMLA.

In affirming the lower court’s grant of summary judgment, the Sixth Circuit attempted to clarify the “morass” of whether McDonnell Douglas applied to interference claims under the FMLA. The Court focused its analysis on its 2008 decision in Grace v. USCAR, 521 F.3d 655 (6th Cir. 2008), holding that the Court had “effectively adopted the McDonnell Douglas tripartite test without saying as much,”  and that the burden-shifting test applied to FMLA interference claims as well as to FMLA retaliation claims.

After finding the McDonnell Douglas applicable to interferences cases under the FMLA, the Sixth Circuit skipped the first two steps of the analysis and proceeded directly to Donald’s burden of establishing pretext. Donald’s sole evidence of pretext was the close temporal proximity between her FMLA leave and her termination; however, the Sixth Circuit found that “[t]emporal proximity is insufficient in and of itself to establish that the employer’s nondiscriminatory reason for discharging an employee was in fact pretextual.”.