Fired While on FMLA Medical Leave? It Can Happen…

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in 1993, provides employees with unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. The Act prohibits employers from firing workers who take leave for valid reasons. But there’s a thin line between authorized and unauthorized use of family medical leave, and dismissing employees for crossing it can leave employers exposed to claims of unlawful termination and retaliation.

Here’s a look at where the courts are drawing that line, from lawyers and law firms on JD Supra:

When employees don’t adequately demonstrate a need for FMLA leave: 

What happened?

  • Janet Lewis was the director of a child development center on a U.S. Air Force Base.
  • After she was passed over for a promotion, she requested FMLA leave, indicating that she was “diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needed therapy, medical treatment, bed rest, two prescription medications, and 120 days off work.”
  • Lewis’ supervisor told her that the information she provided was insufficient to support the need for FMLA leave.
  • When Lewis refused to provide additional information, the Air Force converted the leave to Absence Without Leave and terminated her employment.

How the Court Ruled:

“… the court found that the employee failed to provide medical certification that showed she suffered from a serious health condition that rendered her incapable of performing the duties of her job… Case dismissed.”  (from Employee Who Refuses to Provide Sufficient Medical Certification under FMLA is Lawfully Terminated by Franczek Radelet P.C.)

When employees use FMLA leave for non-caretaker activities:

What happened?

  • During a family vacation in Honduras, Girard Baham’s daughter suffered a serious head injury. She was airlifted to Miami for emergency surgery.
  • Baham requested, and was granted, FMLA leave by his supervisor, who told him to “take all of the time he needed.”
  • After four weeks, Baham returned to the family’s home in Texas, leaving his wife and daughter in Miami, to prepare the house for their return.
  • He returned to work after six weeks, but when reminded that his FMLA paperwork was incomplete, he left the workplace and did not return.
  • The company interpreted his departure as a resignation, and terminated him two days later.

How the Court Ruled:

“The Fifth Circuit found that because Baham was not ‘taking care’ of his daughter after he returned to Texas, he was not entitled to FMLA leave for the duration of the six weeks and therefore could not maintain a retaliation claim… The court specifically held that in order to be entitled to FMLA leave, an employee must show that he is needed ‘to care for’ a family member with a serious health condition, noting that attending to the home did not qualify as care.” (from FMLA Update: Proximity Matters by Beth Lincow Cole)

When employees disregard workplace FMLA leave policies:

What happened?

  • Denise Pellegrino, a CWA employee, was on approved FMLA leave following surgery.
  • While on leave, she took an unapproved week-long vacation to Cancun, Mexico.
  • Her employer learned of Pellegrino’s travels and fired her while still on leave because by taking the trip she violated its leave policies.

How the Court Ruled: 

“While the court agreed that Pellegrino was entitled to unpaid leave under the FMLA, it found no evidence that CWA’s sick leave policy or its decision to terminate her employment while she was still out on leave improperly interfered with her rights under the FMLA. … In its ruling, the court noted that ‘the FMLA does not shield an employee from termination if the employee was allegedly involved in misconduct related to the use of FMLA leave.’” (From Curbing FMLA Abuse: Policies Restricting an Employee’s Travel While on Paid Sick Leave by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC)

“… although the court agreed that Pellegrino’s leave was protected by the FMLA (and that CWA had, in fact, provided FMLA leave), it held that CWA had the right to enforce its own leave policies, which in this case, required that Pellegrino receive permission to travel outside the immediate area. The Court reasoned that Pellegrino’s conduct would have been improper whether or not FMLA leave was involved.” (From Employee’s FMLA Claim Dismissed After Taking a Trip to Cancun by Franczek Radelet P.C.)

When employees abuse workplace FMLA leave policies:

What happened?

  • Douglas Rydalch was a Salt Lake City-based reservation sales agent for Southwest transferred to Houston whose family remained in Utah.
  • In 2004, Rydalch injured his back, and these issues continued through 2007.
  • Claiming back problems, Rydalch often used FMLA leave on important dates and holidays; Southwest caught onto the pattern of his absences and began monitoring his FMLA use.
  • In 2007, following a specific incident, Southwest terminated Rydalch’s employment because he abused FMLA leave.

How the Court Ruled:

“In quickly disposing of [the] lawsuit, a federal court in Utah held that Southwest rightfully had an honest belief that Rydalch was abusing FMLA leave and that its termination decision was legitimate.” (From Employee Who Abused FMLA Leave Around the Holidays Properly Terminated by Franczek Radelet P.C.)

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See also:

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