A former Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. employee who claims she was retaliated against and eventually terminated for taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act will have to overcome a major hurdle: proving the alleged discrimination.
Tina Marie White filed suit May 3 against the Springfield-based insurance giant in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. In her suit, White claims her supervisors treated her differently and disciplined her each of the four times she took an FMLA leave of absence for various ailments over a nine-year period.
The company fired her from its Enfield branch on Jan. 19, about 17 days after she returned from her fourth FMLA leave.
Massachusetts Mutual said Monday it was in full compliance with the federal labor law.
White might have a difficult road ahead, according to long-time labor/employment attorney Stephen Bourtin, who says that while it’s illegal to discriminate against someone for taking legitimate FMLA time, proving retaliation is another story.
“It is indeed difficult to prove what motivates an employer to take action against an employee,” said Bourtin, who heads The Boyd Law Group’s Connecticut office. “Getting into an employer’s head is not an easy task. If you have a smoking gun, that is another story.”
White worked as an account manager and then advanced account manager in Massachusetts Mutual’s third-party administrator division. Her suit claimed the company fired her as “a pretext to mask unlawful discrimination/retaliation because of her use of FMLA leave.”
White said her first request for FMLA time was for a 2 1/2-week period at the end of 2008 to take care of burn injuries she sustained. She said the company approved her request, disciplined her and transferred to a different manager. The suit does not elaborate on the discipline.
White took a second leave in 2013 “due to back issues,” according to the suit. When she returned, her suit claims her supervisor at the time began “fabricating complaints” and “looking for ways to get her fired.” White lodged a complaint with the company’s human resources and legal department.
“She felt she was being retaliated against, and that it was suspicious this was happening following her return from FMLA,” according to the complaint.
White says she received good performance reviews and earned bonuses between her second and third FMLA leaves, during which time the company promoted her to advanced account manager.
But things took another turn after taking her third leave for 5 1/2 weeks over carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes numbness, tingling and other symptoms in the hand and arm.
White returned to work in May 2017, and when she did, she was “treated differently by her prior manager and co-workers” and had a new supervisor, Adam Kozloski, according to the suit.
“No one else on plaintiff’s team was reporting to Adam Kozloski and no explanation was given to plaintiff as why her manager changed,” the complaint alleges.
Soon after her third leave, the lawsuit asserts White felt someone was targeting her, and intercepting her emails on their shared inbox. She made complaints to human resources and Kozloski that “some of her work was being deleted, that she felt someone was sabotaging her and that every time she was on leave her work was sabotaged.” She also alleged managers treated her differently, because they offered help to her colleagues who were filling in for absent co-workers, but never offered to help her.
White took another company-approved FMLA leave for three weeks, returning Jan. 2, 2018. When she returned, White said the company told her that tasks that were supposed to be completed while she was out were not done. Again, White complained about “getting written up” after every leave.
Kozloski fired her weeks later. The company said the termination was “related to things that had occurred prior to her FMLA leave, but that were not raised as issues prior to her leave,” according to the suit, which does not elaborate.
Kozloski declined to comment, and the company issued a short response.
“We have not reviewed the filings, so we cannot comment on it,” said Michael McNamara, a Massachusetts Mutual spokesperson. “Nonetheless, MassMutual has been, and will continue to be fully compliant with regard to all aspects of the Family and Medical Leave Act.”
Connecticut allows for 16 weeks of FMLA leave during a 24-month period, while the federal guidelines allow for 12 weeks within a 12-month period. White appeared to be within those guidelines.
Megan Michaud of Cicchiello & Cicchiello in Hartford represented White. She did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
The lawsuit seeks back pay, damages for emotional distress, attorney fees, liquidated damages, reinstatement of front pay or money awarded for lost compensation, and punitive damages.
Judge Warren Eginton in Bridgeport will hear the case.