A recent lawsuit highlights that FMLA leave should be
provided to working fathers as well as mothers. In the case, Ariel Ayanna sued
his employer, the law firm Dechert LLP, after they terminated him when he took
leave following the birth of his son. A court recently refused to dismiss
Ayanna’s FMLA retaliation claim on the basis that there was evidence his
dismissal was at least partially based on having taken FMLA leave.
By all accounts Ayanna was a good employee at Dechert. He
had received two years of solid performance evaluations and a $30,000 bonus for
the year prior to his dismissal. During his second year at the firm, his wife
became pregnant and suffered from serious personality and depressive disorders
that led her to attempt to commit suicide. After his child was born, Ayanna
took four weeks of FMLA leave in order to care for his wife and baby. When he
returned to work he claims employees at Dechert criticized and made fun of him
for being the primary caregiver for his child. He also claim the negative
evaluation that led to his termination was based on an improper consideration
of personal issues, such as Dechert maintaining a “macho culture” that did not
reward fathers for being engaged parents.
The judge in the case denied Dechert’s motion to dismiss,
highlighting that Ayanna’s dismissal for personal reasons could be interpreted
as being based on his taking of FMLA leave. The court was also critical of
Dechert’s claim that his low billable hours were the reason for his termination,
given that other attorneys with equally low hours were retained by the firm.
The court denied his sex discrimination claim, but kept his FMLA retaliation
claim alive based on the allegation of insensitive statements and the
inconsistent application of discipline to those attorneys with low billable
The case illustrates a few good lessons for
employers. First, employees really need to avoid making statements in
conjunction with a termination decision that could be viewed as being discriminatory.
Second, employers need to apply disciplinary criteria evenly to avoid making
discriminatory and arbitrary decisions. Finally, employers need to make sure
that leave policies for mothers and fathers are equal and applied in a
non-discriminatory fashion. This case is one that FMLA advocates have been
waiting to litigate, so it will be interesting to see the results after