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Second Circuit Applies Burlington Northern to FMLA (and other great rulings)!

Wow!  What a great ruling by the Second Circuit!  Millea v. Metro North.  And what a great result for some great and brave lawyers!  The court applied the broad definition of “materially adverse employment action” to FMLA claims, affirms a great jury instruction on a bad employer FMLA policy, and reverses a judge’s award of $210 in fees when the lodestar was $144,792!

First, a huge shout out to the plaintiff’s lawyers in this case.  Charles C. Goetsch from New Haven took this case and did a fabulous job.  Many of us would not have taken this case for economic reasons.  Way to go Attorney Goetsch!

Now, on to the case.  The facts are a bit complex, but essentially a Metro North worker who suffers from PTSD because of service during the first gulf war, needed to leave work and take another day off because of an argument with his boss.  He told another employee to tell his boss, then took another day off and again had another worker tell his boss.  He was later written up for not following MetroNorth’s procedures which required him to tell his boss directly.

He claims FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.  The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff on the interference claim, but for MetroNorth on the other two claims.

The Second Circuit issued three holdings.  First, MetroNorth’s rule that you have to call your boss and cannot relay the message through another was illegal.  Second, that Judge Bryant’s jury instruction on material adverse employment action was wrong.  Here, the Second Circuit adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Burlington Northern and gave Millea a new trial:

“For purposes of the FMLA’s anti-retaliation provision, a materially adverse action is any action by the employer that is likely to dissuade a reasonable worker in the plaintiff’s position from exercising his legal rights. By instructing the jury that a “material adverse action” is restricted solely to changes in the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, the district court committed legal error.”

This ruling required a new trial on the retaliation claim because Metro North had placed a written reprimand in Millea’s file which the Second Circuit said by law is a materially adverse employment action.

The best part of the ruling for me (of course) is that part about attorneys fees.  Plaintiff’s counsel submitted evidence that its lodestar attorneys fee was $144,792.  Judge Bryant reduced it to $210 or approximately one third of the $612 judgment the jury returned for Plaintiff.  The Second Circuit said this reduction was reversible error.  I don’t have room to reprint the fantastic language from the decision here.  Please read it, print it and keep a copy close to your desk.  Here is a taste:

“The district court calculated its final fee award as a proportion of the damages Millea was awarded. Millea, 2010 WL 126186, at *6. This was legal error. While a court may, in exceptional circumstances, adjust the lodestar, Perdue, 130 S. Ct.at 1673, it may not disregard it entirely. Especially for claims where the financial recovery is likely to be small, calculating attorneys’ fees as a proportion of damages runs directly contrary to the purpose of fee-shifting statutes: assuring that civil rights claims of modest cash value can attract competent counsel. The whole purpose of fee-shifting statutes is to generate attorneys’ fees that are disproportionate to theplaintiff’s recovery. Thus, the district court abused its discretion when it ignored the lodestar and calculated the attorneys’ fees as a proportion of the damages awarded.”

Wow.  Great stuff.  The clear message for plaintiffs attorneys is to bring small, but strong cases and don’t worry about a district judge cutting your lodestar.  The Second Circuit has our back!