Category Archives: FMLA

Seventh Circuit Holds that Multiple-Month Extended Leaves Are Not Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, September 27, 2017

Because not all recoveries from medical conditions come in neat twelve-week packages, employers commonly need to address employees’ requests for additional leave after they have exhausted all leave afforded under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or company policy.

Clock and StethoscopeThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that terminating an employee who has exhausted FMLA leave, but is still not able to return to work, may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). For instance, the EEOC guidance, issued on May 9, 2016, opined that providing additional leave may be necessary as a reasonable accommodation.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision running contrary to this EEOC guidance and the prevailing precedent in other circuits, holding in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., that an employee is not entitled to extended leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

In this case, employee Severson took a twelve-week medical leave from work under the FMLA to deal with serious back pain (the statutory maximum). Shortly before this leave expired, Severson notified his employer that he was scheduled to undergo back surgery, and requested an additional two to three months of leave to recover from surgery. The company denied Severson’s request to continue his medical leave beyond the FMLA entitlement, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  Instead, Severson sued, alleging a failure to reasonably accommodate his disability—namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court and clarified that a medical leave spanning multiple months is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation. Finding that the employer did not violate the ADA by refusing to provide the additional leave, the Seventh Circuit explicitly stated that an employee, who cannot not work or perform their job’s essential functions, is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  Further highlighting its position, the Court distinguished between the FMLA, which it held was intended to provide long-term medical leave for those who cannot work, while the ADA is meant to require accommodation only for those “that can do the job.”

Before employers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana reinstate strict Maximum Leave Policies and No-Fault Termination policies, whereby employees are automatically terminated if they cannot return to work when FMLA or other awarded leave is exhausted, several limitations to Severson should be noted.

Severson’s holding is limited to “medical leave[s] spanning multiple months.” The Court acknowledged that finite extensions of leave for shorter durations – described as “a couple of days or even a couple of weeks”, but less than multiple months – may still be deemed a reasonable accommodation.

The Court further acknowledged that intermittent leaves of short duration may constitute reasonable accommodations in the same way a part-time or modified work schedule may be a reasonable accommodation for employees dealing with medical flare-ups. Moreover, employers should be cautious about maintaining 100% Healed Policies, whereby an employer requires employees to have no medical restrictions whatsoever when their leave ends.

At any time employees have exhausted their leave, but are not fully cleared to return to work, the employer should engage in the ADA’s interactive process and consider the following before deciding to terminate employment:

  • Whether the employee’s current medical restrictions affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position;
  • If the restrictions do impact the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions, are reasonable accommodations available that would enable the employee to perform these functions;
  • Whether vacant positions exist that the employee would be qualified to perform and could be reassigned into;
  • Whether the employer has a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who are occupationally injured and whether this benefit could be extended to the employee without posing an undue hardship; and
  • Whether the employee’s request for additional leave is definite in time and of a short duration, and if this extended leave could be provided without posing an undue hardship.

 

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

Recent Appellate Court Decision Provides Guidance For Investigating Intermittent FMLA Abuse

Contributed by Steven Jados, December 8, 2016

Intermittent FMLA leave can be a source of frustration for employers even when it is used appropriately because it complicates staffing and planning and interrupts business operations. But when an employee’s use of intermittent leave seems just too convenient (e.g., when it is regularly used on Fridays and Mondays to make long weekends), employers naturally grow suspicious.

The recent Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit confirms that if an employer is able to prove intermittent FMLA abuse by conducting a prompt and thorough internal investigation, and perhaps some luck, it is justified in taking action against an FMLA abuser.

Sharif arranged his schedule so that he was required to work only one shift – March 30 — during a three-week period. Having arranged that schedule, Sharif took a vacation to South Africa.  At approximately 1 a.m. on March 30th, Sharif left a voicemail saying he needed to take intermittent FMLA leave for his shift that day.

out of office at the beachSharif’s use of intermittent FMLA leave in the midst of a lengthy vacation struck United as unusual as did the fact that Sharif’s wife (also a United employee) was taking similarly-scheduled time-off. Furthermore, Sharif had taken FMLA under similarly suspicious circumstances in 2013. United investigated Sharif’s whereabouts and learned, among other things, there were no flights from South Africa at that time would have allowed him to return to the U.S. in time for his shift. When United questioned Sharif, his story shifted multiple times suggesting he was being dishonest. Ultimately, United concluded Sharif never intended to work his March 30th shift and terminated him.

Sharif sued alleging he was terminated in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. United responded that Sharif’s use of FMLA leave on March 30th was fraudulent. United prevailed in the district court without a trial, and the appellate court upheld the judgment because United made “a reasonably informed and considered decision” before terminating Sharif.

United’s investigation uncovered facts—and an equivocating employee—that made the case for termination a much easier decision than most employers typically face. Nevertheless, employers can still learn lessons from the thoroughness of United’s investigation. When faced with suspected FMLA abuse, employers should conduct as much of the investigation as possible before interviewing the employee. When it is time to interview the employee, employers must carefully document the answers the employee provides. If the employee is a habitual FMLA abuser, careful documentation of prior explanations for FMLA use may, over time, reveal inconsistencies and untruths that are helpful in the future.

The bottom line is that FMLA abuse is usually difficult to establish. Employers should consult with experienced labor and employment counsel before, during, and after any investigation of suspected abuse to ensure that whatever decision is made is supported by strong evidence that can withstand court scrutiny.

HR Director May Be Individually Liable Under FMLA

Contributed by Debra Mastrian

A recent Second Circuit case, Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, Case No. 15-888-cv (Mar. 17, 2016), offers a sobering lesson for human resources personnel and supervisors who handle the administration of leave requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Court held that an HR Director may be liable as an employer, as a “person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer” toward an employee. Finding that the FMLA definition of employer is similar to the definition under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Court agreed with other circuits (including the 3rd and 5th) who have applied the economic-reality test to find individual liability under the FMLA. [Note: The Seventh Circuit has not yet addressed the issue, although District Courts in Illinois and Indiana have issued opinions agreeing that individuals may be liable under the FMLA.]

The key issue under the economic-reality test is the power the individual has over the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, including whether the individual has the power to hire and fire the employee, maintains employment records, determines the rate and method of pay, or sets and supervises the work schedule. However, the most critical factor is whether or not the individual controlled FMLA leave.

EmployerIn Graziadio, the employee initially took leave to care for a sick child, and then later took additional leave to care for another child who had broken his leg. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) took issue with the FMLA paperwork, claiming it was not sufficient to justify the absences, and would not let the employee return to work without new documentation. The CIA did not clarify what additional information was needed or why the original paperwork was insufficient. The HR Director never provided any clarification and refused to let the employee return without a face-to-face meeting. The meeting never occurred, but the employee provided updated medical documentation. The HR Director did not respond and ultimately terminated the employee for job abandonment. The employee sued the CIA and HR Director for interference and retaliation under the FMLA among other things.

The Second Circuit found there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the HR Director was an employer in economic reality and that she interfered with the employee’s rights. Even though the ultimate ability to terminate rested with the President, since the President did not conduct an independent investigation and agreed with the HR Director’s recommendation to terminate, the HR Director “played an important role.” The HR Director also exercised control of the employee’s schedule and conditions of employment by handling the FMLA leave, including reviewing the paperwork, and communicating with the employee.

What can employers take away from this case?  Until the United States Supreme Court weighs in on this issue, employers should inform HR personnel and supervisors handling FMLA requests of their potential individual liability and ensure they are regularly trained on compliance. If employers or their HR personnel choose to challenge an employee’s paperwork, they need to be prepared to provide specific reasons to justify their actions.

FMLA: Employer’s Leave of Absence Form Defeats Former Employee’s FMLA Claim

Contributed by Michael Wong

Under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) employees do not have to expressly say they need “FMLA” or otherwise invoke any of its provisions when requesting leave that would qualify under the FMLA. As such, employers have to be vigilant and question whether an employee’s request or need for leave qualifies for FMLA leave.

Absent employeeHowever, employers should know that an employee can affirmatively decline to use FMLA leave, even if the underlying reason for seeking the leave would have invoked FMLA protection. Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc., 743 F.3d 1236, 1244 (9th Cir. 2014), citing Ridings v. Riverside Med. Ctr., 537 F.3d 755, 769 n. 3 (7th Cir.2008) states that, “If an employee does not wish to take FMLA leave but continues to be absent from work, then the employee must have a reason for the absence that is acceptable under the employer’s policies, otherwise termination is justified.”

In the recent case Amstutz v. Liberty Ctr. Bd. of Educ., No. 3:13CV2385, 2015 WL 5254988, (N.D. Ohio Sept. 9, 2015), the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio held that the employee affirmatively declined FMLA leave and thus was not able to pursue any of her FMLA claims against the employer. In Amstutz, the employee requested a week of sick leave for her grandson’s birth. The employee was advised that under the CBA she could only use one sick day and would have to use personal days for the rest of the week. When the week arrived the employee called in sick and said she would be bedridden for the rest of the week. When the employee returned to work she filled out a leave of absence form and provided a doctor’s note. The employer’s leave of absence form included a section that explained FMLA leave and included a checkbox where the employee could request FMLA leave. Instead of selecting unpaid FMLA leave, the employee requested regular paid sick leave.

The Court in Amstutz held that the employee understood FMLA leave as she had taken it before and thus when filling out the leave of absence form she expressly declined FMLA leave by choosing paid sick leave and not checking the box for FMLA leave. The Court further held that since the employee declined FMLA leave, the employer could not have known that she wanted FMLA leave. Therefore, the employer was not obligated to provide her FMLA leave and could not have interfered with or retaliated against her in violation of the FMLA.

The takeaway for employers from these cases is that there are actions that you can take to limit your exposure to FMLA claims through your policies and forms. First and foremost, it is important to have an FMLA leave policy that is understandable and that identifies who employees should talk to in the event of an absence. Next, as demonstrated by these cases, leave of absence forms and other reporting techniques can be used to help in defending against FMLA claims by showing that the employee affirmatively declined FMLA leave.

Employees That Are Erratic and Disruptive, While Suffering From A Mental Illness, Can Still Be Terminated Under The ADA

Contributed by Julie Proscia

Erratic behavior, caused by an underlying medical condition, does not necessarily mean a free pass under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In March, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Walz v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., upheld the termination of a bipolar employee, finding that the termination did not violate the ADA. Identifying and accommodating employees with overt physical disabilities is substantially easier than accommodating behavior that is disruptive and/or erratic and caused by mental illness. Because of the difficulty in addressing these types of issues, employers are often unsure of what to do–and thus do nothing. This ruling is good news for employers that struggle with disciplining and ultimately terminating individuals that are disruptive in the workplace and who cannot perform the essential functions of their position with or without a reasonable accommodation.

In Walz v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., the plaintiff worked for Ameriprise as a process analyst. The position required not only good communication skills but also the ability to work well in a team. Starting in 2012, the plaintiff began to interrupt meetings, disturb coworkers, and disrespect her supervisor. After Walz’s supervisor had repeated discussions with her about her behavior, including offers of assistance and time off, she was eventually issued a disciplinary warning. Walz then applied for FMLA leave which was granted by a third party vendor that administers the leave requests for Ameriprise. Neither the third party vendor nor Walz ever informed Ameriprise of the reason for the FMLA leave. Upon her return to work, Walz provided a doctor’s note stating that her medications had been stabilized and was released for duty. The plaintiff was then given, reviewed, and signed a document that explained Ameriprise’s policy against disability discrimination and the procedure for requesting a reasonable accommodation. Within months of her return to work, Walz again began to engage in disruptive and erratic behavior to both her colleagues and supervisor, and was ultimately terminated. Throughout this time, Walz never requested a reasonable accommodation or reported the nature of her illness.

Walz subsequently sued Ameriprise alleging that it violated the ADA and should have known that she had a disability and forced her to take additional time off, despite the fact that she never disclosed the illness nor requested an accommodation. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit rejected her arguments and upheld the district court’s ruling. In doing so, the court found that Walz was not a qualified individual under the ADA because she could not perform the essential functions of her position with or without accommodation. Moreover, it held that the employer does not have a duty to “guess” an employee’s disability when the employee does not inform it of the illness or injury.

Bottom Line: Employers can discipline and terminate employees for erratic, rude and disruptive behavior even if the cause is ultimately related to an underlying medical condition. In a note of caution, employers still need to engage in the interactive process and investigate reasonable accommodations if the employee has disclosed a medication condition causing the behavior.

California Law Update: New Family Rights Act Regulations Starting July 1, 2015

Contributed by Heather BaileyCalifornia

As California employers are well aware, the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) gives employees certain leave rights for medical conditions, similar to the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  However, starting July 1, 2015, the regulations are updated to align more with FMLA in certain areas and to clarify areas where CFRA is different than FMLA.

CFRA alignment includes:

  • “Covered employers” now contains successors in interest and joint employers are defined similar to FMLA;
  • Spouse is defined to include same-sex spouses as FMLA;
  • When calculating the 12 months of eligibility cut off, the break in service is now seven years or more like FMLA;
  • Employer has five business days to respond to the need for CFRA leave;
  • Key employees are defined as those in the highest 10% of the workforce; and
  • Employers have the ability to deny reinstatement if an employee fraudulently uses CFRA leave, doesn’t cooperate with the medical certification process or fails to cooperate with employer questions re: leave.

It is important to highlight some of the key variances that remain between the two very alike, but different medical leave laws:

  • If your workforce has 10% or more employees who speak another language as their primary one, you must translate the CFRA notice in that language.
  • New CFRA Certification of Health Care provided should be used.
  • Although under FMLA, an HR professional or administrator may contact the doctor to authenticate or clarify a medical certification, under CFRA, they may only contact the doctor to authenticate.
  • Second opinions? More difficult under CFRA.  You need a “good faith, objective reason” to request one, and don’t bother asking for one unless it’s for the employee’s serious health condition.
  • During the certification process, employers may not ask for additional information such as the underlining diagnosis of the need for leave or symptoms.
  • Medical continuation must be provided for employee’s entire unpaid pregnancy disability leave (4 months) including the subsequent CFRA leave (12 weeks).
  • While an employee is on Paid Family Leave, employer cannot require they exhaust/use any accrued paid leave during this time even if it’s covered under the CFRA.

Practice Tips:

  • Use the new CFRA medical certification form;
  • Update your handbooks and related policies with the new changes;
  • Update the poster with the revised CFRA poster;
  • Survey your existing workforce to determine if at least 10% speak a different language;
  • Vet out a reputable translation service for the new notices (in the event the department does not do so on its own);
  • Train, train, train your management so they understand the triggers so they know when to get HR involved in employee leaves; and
  • When in doubt, contact your labor and employment counsel.