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Laing v. Federal Express Corporation, No. 11-2116

Decided on: January 9, 2013

Kimberly Laing appealed the district court’s award of summary judgment to Federal Express Corporation (“FedEx”). The Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s summary judgment award was proper because Laing did not present direct evidence of discrimination, nor did she satisfy the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting standard. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of FedEx.

Kimberly Laing fell while making deliveries for FedEx and suffered significant knee damage. Laing provided her supervisor a note from a specialist ordering surgery. The supervisor later noted that Laing might have been falsifying delivery records in order to artificially enhance performance. Laing applied for leave under the FMLA, which FedEx granted. When Laing returned, her supervisor placed her on an investigatory suspension with full pay. After the investigation concluded, FedEx terminated Laing’s employment because Laing had falsified her records. Laing filed suit and argued that FedEx terminated her employment in violation of the FMLA in retaliation for her decision to take medical leave and by failing to restore her to an equivalent position upon her return from leave. The district court granted summary judgment to FedEx, stating that Laing established a prima facie case of discrimination, but failed to show that FedEx’s reasons for termination were pretextual.

On appeal, Laing contends she presented direct evidence of discrimination in the form of comments made to her by various supervisors. However, the statements did not suggest a discriminatory attitude, but rather constituted informal, lighthearted communication between coworkers. Next, the Fourth Circuit turned to the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), burden-shifting framework, wherein the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination to shift the burden to the employer to articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for its action. The plaintiff is then entitled to prove that the employer’s explanation “was in fact pretext.” Id. at 802–04. Laing established a prima facie showing of discrimination, but FedEx met its burden in articulating a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for” suspending Laing, because FedEx discharged her for falsifying records. Id. at 802. Laing did not satisfy the burden of proving that FedEx’s reason for terminating her was pretextual, primarily because she did not produce evidence that a similarly situated employee was given more favorable treatment. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of FedEx. Laing also argued that FedEx denied her right under the FMLA to be restored to her original position before taking leave. The Fourth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to this claim, noting that the FMLA does not afford an “absolute right to restoration.” Yashenko v. Harrah’s N.C. Casino Co., 466 F.3d 541, 549 (4th Cir. 2006).

Full Opinion

-Michelle Theret