Tag Archives: FMLA

EEOC Consent Decree a Reminder That Attendance Policies Must Have an ADA Escape Valve

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb, August 13, 2018

72219825 - book with title the americans with disabilities act (ada).In July the EEOC announced the terms of a consent decree settling claims of systemic disability discrimination against a global metal products manufacturer. Pursuant to the terms of the decree, the employer will pay $1 million, reinstate affected employees, appoint an ADA coordinator, revise its policies and procedures, track accommodation requests, maintain an accommodation log, provide ADA training to all of its employees, and report its progress to the EEOC over the next two and a half years.

Where did the employer go wrong? According to the announcement, the employer violated the ADA in two ways: by awarding attendance points regardless of the reason for the absence and by terminating employees who were not able to return to work after 180 days of leave.

So called “no fault” attendance policies are common and have many advantages. They are transparent and easy to administer, they remove discretion from frontline supervisors (and with it potential favoritism and bias), they treat employees as adults by allowing them to manage their own time, and they remove much of the burden of policing the reason for each absence. But problems arise when employers – no longer called upon to scrutinize the reason for each absence – miss ADA and FMLA triggers. Remember, employees are not required to say “disability,” “ADA,” or “reasonable accommodation” to trigger the ADA-mandated “interactive process.” There are no “magic words.” The same is true of the FMLA. Anything that alerts or should have alerted the employer that an employee has a disability and may need reasonable accommodation (or that absences may qualify for FMLA protection) triggers statutory obligations. And to further complicate matters, anything a supervisory employee knows can be imputed to the employer.

Even policies designed to help employees, like the policy for providing up to 180 days of medical leave which far exceeds the 12 weeks the FMLA affords, must be applied with the ADA in mind. A blanket policy that any employee who is not able to return after 180 will be terminated does not allow for the individualized assessment mandated by the ADA. Bottom line, all policies, attendance policies as well as work rules, performance metrics, etc. must be analyzed with the ADA in mind. Always include an ADA escape valve.

Best Practices:

  1. Regularly review your ADA and FMLA policies to make sure they are clear, concise and easily understood;
  2. Clearly direct employees to contact HR if they believe they need leave or reasonable accommodation for a disability;
  3. Clarify that your attendance and leave policies (and others as appropriate) are applied within the framework of the ADA and FMLA and again invite employees who believe they may need leave or an accommodation to discuss the issue with HR;
  4. Include FMLA and ADA issues in regular supervisor training and require supervisors to elevate potential issues to HR; and
  5. Finally, there is no escaping the fact that ADA and FMLA issues are difficult. Partnering with trusted, experienced employment counsel as you navigate these complicated issues can often allow you to avoid the expense and hassle of defending legal claims later.

 

Can Employees Voluntarily Work During FMLA Leave?

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, May 15, 2018

66028068 - fmla family medical leave act ,fmla

“FMLA Family Medical Leave Act” with doctor in background

Last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion that provides a helpful reminder about the extent to which an employer may ask an employee to work during a leave taken under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In D’Onofrio v. Vacation Publications, Inc., a sales representative requested FMLA leave to care for her husband, who had suffered a major back injury. Her employer gave her two options – she could either go on unpaid leave or she could log on remotely a few times per week during her leave in order to service her existing accounts and keep her commissions. The sales representative opted to continue servicing her accounts during her leave. Later, the sales representative sued her employer and alleged, among other claims, that her employer denied her entitlements under the FMLA by requesting that she work during her leave. The court quickly dismissed this claim because the sales representative had voluntarily agreed to the work. The employer had not coerced this work and had not conditioned the sales representative’s continued employment on completing the work during her leave. The court stated that “[g]iving employees the option to work while on leave does not constitute an interference with FMLA rights so long as working while on leave is not a condition of employment.”

This case serves as an example of a black and white rule – an employer may not condition continued employment on completing work while on FMLA leave or otherwise coerce or require an employee to work while out on FMLA leave. However, there is a lot of gray area surrounding this clear rule. While an employer may not require an employee to complete full assignments or regular work during leave, nothing in the FMLA statute or regulations prohibits an employer from contacting an employee during leave with de minimis requests or short and simple questions. For example, an employer may contact an employee on FMLA leave to request a password to access a file, to locate paperwork, or to obtain a quick update on where a particular matter was left.

To best avoid interference claims under FMLA, employers should limit contact with employees who are on leave. Any communication about work assignments should be short and not require the employee to travel to the workplace or otherwise require the employee to expend significant time or effort. Should an employee voluntarily agree to work during leave, the employer should communicate that the work is not required and document the nature of the voluntary agreement. And, if the employee is out on unpaid FMLA and has agreed to complete some assignments, the employer should ensure the employee is compensated to avoid any wage and hour issues.

 

Save the Date! SmithAmundsen Complimentary Webinar – August 23rd – FMLA & ADA: Understanding a Complicated Legal Relationship

Employers of all shapes and sizes face the challenge of managing employee medical issues. Suzanne Newcomb provides insight to help employers manage risk and avoid liability by learning to better manage medical issues that arise. This program focuses on the FMLA and the ADA, and offers attendees specific insight on:

  • Identifying triggers requiring action under the FMLA and the ADA
  • Effectively managing employee medical leave
  • Avoiding common pitfalls
  • And more!

Register for the webinar here!

Recent Federal Court Decision Requires Employees to Shoulder Some of the Burden of Disability Accommodations

Contributed by Steven Jados, October 3, 2016

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the laws of many states generally require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to certain employees with disabilities. This requires the employer and employee to participate in an interactive process aimed at finding job changes that allow the employee to continue working. For many employers, that requirement raises many questions for which there are no simple, definitive answers—which forces employers to make accommodation decisions amid considerable uncertainty.

gavelbwBut the recent decision in Dillard v. City of Austin, Texas, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, may help employers handle situations when employees cause a breakdown in the interactive process. The plaintiff in the case, Derrick Dillard, was employed to operate machinery and perform manual labor until he was injured on-the-job in March 2011. Thereafter, he received FMLA leave and, after that ran out, additional discretionary leave. In early 2012, Dillard was cleared to return to work for the first time, albeit in a limited capacity that did not allow him to resume his former job.

In an effort to accommodate Dillard’s medical restrictions and return him to work, the City offered him a position as an administrative assistant, even though he had no relevant experience and his qualifications for the position were lacking. Dillard expressed reservations, but ultimately took the job in May 2012.  As an attempt to ensure that Dillard succeeded as an administrative assistant, the City provided him typing and computer training, allowed him to “shadow” another administrative assistant, and provided Dillard access to additional training programs. But Dillard’s skills did not improve and he did not pursue additional training. Instead, he played computer games, made personal calls, repeatedly arrived late, left early, or missed work altogether—and lied about his work time. By September 2012, the City determined that Dillard’s performance was unsatisfactory, and terminated his employment.

Shortly thereafter, Dillard sued the City, alleging that it unlawfully failed to accommodate his disability and terminated him because of it. The trial court ruled against Dillard, and, on appeal, the Fifth Circuit stated that the law required Dillard “to make an honest effort to learn and carry out the duties of his new job with the help of the training the City offered him.” But because Dillard did not do that, the court determined that Dillard was solely responsible for the breakdown in the reasonable accommodation process, and the City was not liable under the ADA or Texas State law.

Now, employers should note that this decision is not necessarily the law of the land for the entire U.S., because decisions of the Fifth Circuit are controlling law only in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Employers must also realize that reasonable accommodation cases are extremely fact-specific, which makes it unlikely that this outcome can be expected every time an employer faces an ADA lawsuit. In particular, if the City had not been so accommodating, and if the employee’s lack of good faith effort was not so clear, the case might have been decided differently.

The bottom line is that although employers must engage in good faith efforts to find a reasonable accommodation, the employee has the same obligation—so employers should not hesitate to document instances in which an employee stands in the way of making a successful accommodation, because such documentation may later provide a basis for disciplinary action, as well as a defense to claims of discrimination and failure to accommodate.

Employee States FMLA Claim Despite Never Having Taken Qualifying Leave

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb

Last week a Federal District Court ruled a disgruntled former employee could proceed with her interference and retaliation claims under the FMLA even though she never actually took any FMLA-qualifying leave. The case serves as a reminder of just how easily an employee triggers the statute’s broad protections.

out of office signThe former employee submitted completed FMLA paperwork relating to a chronic condition and the employer approved her request to take intermittent leave, as needed, in the future. She never actually took leave under the statute and, in fact, she did not even ask for any leave after her employer approved her request for intermittent leave. Yet, when she was terminated some time later, she sued claiming her employer interfered with her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for exercising her FMLA protected rights. Her employer argued it could not have “interfered with” her FMLA rights or retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave, because she had never actually taken or asked to take leave under the statute. The Court disagreed and allowed her claims to proceed.

The FMLA requires employees to provide advance notice of their need for leave whenever possible and therefore, the court reasoned, it is only logical that the statute’s employee protections trigger as soon as the employee takes any action that invokes her rights under the statute. The retaliation claim is even more straight-forward. The plain language of the statute clearly prohibits retaliation against an employee who exercises or attempts to exercise her FMLA rights. An employee is not required to actually take leave in order to activate the statute’s protections.

This and other similar decisions serve as a reminder that an employee exercises her protected FMLA rights, and therefore triggers the statute’s protections, by simply putting her employer on notice of her possible need for a leave that may qualify under the Act. This could be by requesting, completing or submitting FMLA paperwork, but it does not have to be so formalized. In fact, an employee is not required to say “FMLA” or even “medical leave” in order to trigger the FMLA’s protection. Anything that puts the employer on notice that an absence could be FMLA-qualifying or that an employee may need leave for a qualifying reason at some point in the future, could trigger the employer’s FMLA obligations and the notice requirements.

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.