Ms N, 30, was exhausted. It was mid-September 2013, and she had just finished her fourth consecutive 12-hour, 7 pm to 7 am shift in the pediatric department of the hospital where she worked. She had been a nurse at the hospital since graduating from nursing school in 2010. The job itself was rewarding. Ms N enjoyed working with children, and her performance reviews reflected that—her appraisals always indicated that she consistently met or exceeded expectations. Her most recent review praised her work, noting that Ms N “displayed a calm, compassionate, confident manner when interacting with patients and families,” “interacted well with physicians,” and had “expanded her clinical skills.” She had recently been promoted to the Pediatric Emergency Department in the hospital.
Everything was good, except for Ms N’s health. She had had a series of medical issues that forced her to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) starting in 2011. That year, Ms N needed time off for sinus surgery. In 2012, she took FMLA leave for 8 days due to severe asthmatic bronchitis. In April 2013, she took 3 weeks of FMLA leave after her asthmatic bronchitis worsened, requiring a hospital stay for 9 of those days. In August 2013, she was again hospitalized and took another 2 weeks of FMLA leave. While she was in the hospital, her supervisor relocated and was replaced by a new supervisor. Ms N met with the new supervisor when she returned to work in September. She explained to her supervisor that her doctor wanted to do additional testing, but that she would try to schedule it on an outpatient basis so as not to miss any more work.
Now it was mid-September, and Ms N had just finished a busy 7 pm to 7 am shift, so busy that she had not been able to take her half-hour break. It was 7 am, but she had a staff meeting at 7:30 am, so she remained on the clock and took her break from 7 to 7:30 am. She sat at the nurse’s station and closed her burning eyes for a moment. The next thing she knew, her supervisor was standing over her, loudly and pointedly saying “Good morning, Ms N.”
Two days later, Ms N was summoned to human resources (HR) where her supervisor and the HR director informed her that she had violated the hospital’s policy, which specified that the hospital “does not allow sleeping during meal periods or rest periods.” She was shown a video that showed her sleeping intermittently for 3 minutes and continuously for another 3 minutes at the nurse’s station. Based on this, and to her great shock, Ms N was fired from her job.
Ms N hired an attorney and filed suit against the hospital, alleging that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. She argued that the hospital’s claim that she had been fired for sleeping was a pretext. To prove this, she had to come up with comparable situations in the hospital in which an employee who was sleeping on the job was not fired. The district court did not believe that Ms N had introduced sufficient evidence showing this and dismissed the case.
Ms N appealed, and the case went to the US Court of Appeals.