Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) a violation can leave a defendant-employer liable to the employee for a sum of liquidated damages equal to the amount of other damages (lost pay and benefits) awarded. An employer can avoid this liability by showing that it acted in good faith and had "reasonable grounds for believing" it was not violating the FMLA. But there is a "strong presumption in favor of liquidated damages" as the Eighth Circuit explained recently in Jackson v. Hot Springs, Nos 13-1772, 1875 (May 12, 2014).
Wayne Jackson worked for the city as a welder/machinist. In January 2010, he underwent surgery and used his accrued paid sick leave while he recovered. When he ran out of accrued leave, Jackson requested FMLA leave, which the city granted. Jackson then ran out of FMLA leave, but requested and was granted an additional 30 days leave under city policy. But Jackson was not ready to return to work when the 30 days lapsed so he was fired.
Two months later, Jackson applied for his former job. He and two other candidates were interviewed, and Jackson was recommended for hiring. But Jackson's former and would-be supervisor, a Merriman, who had previously expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of Jackson's FMLA leave, fabricated a reason to scuttle the hiring. The position remained open, another application process was gone through four months later, but this time Jackson was not interviewed. The city's explanation for not interviewing Jackson – that it interviewed only two far better qualified candidates – fell flat, when it was forced to admit at trial that those two interviewees could not operate some of the job's basic machinery.
So, the city made up what the jury could find fairly was a lie as to why it did not initially rehire Jackson, and it could find fairly that it made up another lie for not interviewing him during the second hiring process.
The jury found for Jackson on his FMLA retaliation claim – that he was not rehired in retaliation for using his FMLA rights and taking leave allowed by the law – and awarded him $56,000 in damages covering his lost pay. But, paradoxically, the jury also answered affirmatively and interrogatory that the city had acted in good faith. The trial court judge adopted this finding; Jackson appealed.
The Eighth Circuit ruled that "the district court abused its discretion when it denied liquidated damages." First, the court observed that there is a "strong presumption in favor of liquidated damages" under the FMLA. This presumption follows logically since "showing good faith when a jury has determined intentional retaliation is a very high bar to clear." Second, the city did not offer any evidence of its good faith beyond its explanation for not rehiring Jackson. But this could not suffice, since "a good faith finding based on Hot Springs' alleged reasons for its decision not to rehire Jackson would be an abuse of discretion because such a finding would disregard the jury's non-advisory finding of intentional retaliation." Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit reversed the denial of liquidated damages and remanded the case.