When a Manager Makes Even One Stupid Comment after an FMLA Request, the Employer Pays the Price

Posted in Court Decisions, Interference, Retaliation

BossHow would you like to work alongside Jim, who engages in the following behavior:

  • He makes a habit of telling co-workers what they are doing wrong, using a degrading tone of voice, and instigates arguments when doing so.  Jim regularly uses a belligerent tone of voice with co-workers.
  • When his supervisor tells him to act more professionally with co-workers, Jim tells him he would “never back down if he felt he was defending himself.”
  • He sends an email to a co-worker, telling him, “You’re my bitch.”
  • When Jim’s wife visits him at work, Jim inexplicably introduces his wife to his co-workers by stating, “This is my bitch.”
  • He tells his boss that there better be no “nonsense” in his performance evaluation.
  • After being repeatedly warned about his inappropriate communications with other employees, Jim sends an email to a co-worker, warning him “to refrain from any sarcasm towards me as you do not have the mental ability to handle any sarcasm that is returned to you.”

After this last email, Jim was terminated because of his inappropriate interactions with other employees. If that wasn’t enough, after he was terminated, Jim refused to leave the premises until the police were called. As he was being escorted out by the police, he shouted out, “You haven’t heard the last of me!”

A fairly easy employee to terminate, don’t you think?  He couldn’t possibly have a viable legal claim against us, right?


You see, at the very time Jim was busy calling a fellow employee his “bitch,” he also was requesting FMLA leave to care for his son. And what was his supervisor’s response to Jim about his FMLA request?  A one-liner:

The Company “paid for [Jim’s] insurance and thus expected him to be at work.”

That’s it. That’s all the boss said. Oh yeah, the boss also allegedly “appeared frustrated and aggravated” when Jim turned in his FMLA paperwork. Whatever that means.

One ill-advised comment.  That’s all it took, since the court reviewing Jim’s FMLA claim found that this one remark (along with the “frustrated and aggravated” look, of course) was enough to allow a jury to consider whether the Company violated the law.  Hefti v. Brunk Industries, Inc. (pdf)

If true, it’s quite a costly comment, as it could saddle the Company with a judgment well into the six figures between attorney’s fees and damages.

Insights for Employers

1.  Mind your communications. The Company may ultimately convince a jury to find Jim as he is — a belligerent employee who deserved termination.  To be clear, the Company disputes that the supervisor ever made the comment, and it will have the chance to prove its side at trial. However, alleged comments of the kind here by Jim’s direct supervisor give a reviewing court such an easy basis to allow a case to go to a jury.  In any event, these are not the kind of communications an employer wants to present to a jury.  Enough said.

2. Another friendly reminder: Prepare honest performance evaluations. Shortly before Jim’s termination, he received a decent performance evaluation, and in particular, he received a “4” out of “5” in workplace behavior. Huh? This smacks of a supervisor who avoided another difficult conversation with the employee. Yet, this positive score seemed to influence the court’s decision in allowing the claim to go to a jury.

3. Training Saves Money. Please, please, please train your employees on how to effectively and lawfully manage leaves of absence under your personnel policies and the law. Included in this training, of course, should include a stern warning against any stray comments of the kind above. Investing a couple hundred bucks now to conduct effective FMLA training will maximize your chances of saving tens of thousands when the real life situation presents itself.

Can an Employee Decline FMLA Leave Simply by Checking a Box on a Form?

Posted in Interference, Notice

FMLA leave rejectedDo you require your employees to fill out a form or an application to request leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act? If not, are you thinking of changing to such an approach? Either way, pay attention to this story about Carrie, whose particular leave situation is instructive for employers.

The Facts

Carrie was a bus driver and cafeteria worker for a local school district. Interesting combination, but I’ll keep my comments to myself.

Carrie requested sick leave to attend her grandchild’s birth, but under the terms of her collective bargaining agreement, she could use only one sick day for the birth, and she was required to use personal days for the rest of the time off.

As the story goes, immediately after her grandchild was born, Carrie called in sick with bronchitis, indicating that the medical condition would cause her to miss work for the rest of the week. She later claimed to be bedridden and required a breathing machine during the time she was absent.

When Carrie returned to work, she filled out a “sick leave” form, explaining that she had “acute bronchitis, fever [and an] ear infection.” She attached a note from her doctor excusing her from work because of an unspecified “illness.” The sick leave form included a section in which Carrie could have requested FMLA leave for her absence and contained a a brief explanation of how an employee could qualify for FMLA leave. Notably, Carrie did not request FMLA leave, opting instead for regular, paid sick leave.

Not surprisingly, Carrie’s supervisor found the timing of her absence too coincidental, given that Carrie earlier had requested sick leave for the same period of time. Her supervisor reviewed security camera footage from the week Carrie was absent, and sure enough, the video showed Carrie picking up her granddaughter at the school.


As a result, the school believed Carrie was lying about the reason for her absence. She later was terminated for an unrelated performance issue.

The Ruling

After her termination, Carrie filed an FMLA interference claim, contending that the school should have characterized her leave on this occasion as protected by the FMLA.

Noting that Carrie had taken FMLA leave on a number of previous occasions, the court determined that she knew well the school’s policy for requesting FMLA leave. So, when the school asked her specifically on the sick leave form (and included a definition of FMLA leave on that form), and she declined FMLA leave in favor of paid leave, it was clear that the school “was no longer obligated to her” under the FMLA. The court also determined that Carrie could not “retroactively” invoke an FMLA right she previously chose not to exercise.

FMLA interference claim denied.  Amstutz v. Liberty Center Board of Education (pdf)

Insights for Employers

This decision is an illustrative one for employers, as it gives us good insight into what we need to include in our leave request forms to insulate us from an FMLA interference claim:

1. As a general rule, employers should use a general leave of absence request form, allowing employees to specify any of the reasons for their need for leave.

2. If you ask an employee to affirmatively indicate whether they are requesting FMLA leave — by checking a box or specifically stating so — it is imperative that you provide enough information about what the FMLA is.

Keep in mind the basic premise of FMLA notice, namely, that the employee is not required to invoke the Act or the letters F-M-L-A to request leave. The employee need only provide facts sufficient enough to put the employer on notice of the need for FMLA leave. So, as an initial matter, I get a bit queasy when my client uses a leave of absence form that asks the employee — without more — to state affirmatively whether they need FMLA leave or not.

This type of form might be effective for someone like Carrie, who had taken FMLA leave on a number of previous occasions.  But what about the employee who has never requested FMLA leave before and doesn’t have a clue as to what FMLA stands for?  This is where the risk comes into play. Employers minimize this risk when they carefully explain on the leave form what circumstances might be covered by the FMLA.  An even more effective form actually links to the employer’s comprehensive FMLA policy.

3. The kind of form used by the school in this case can be particularly effective where an employee has taken FMLA leave in the past.  Clearly, the fact that Carrie took FMLA leave on previous occasions was significant in the court’s determination that she knew what kind of leave she was (and was not) requesting when she completed the school’s sick leave form.

That all said, let’s not assume our forms are up to snuff.  If you’re using a leave of absence form covering multiple forms of leave, including FMLA leave, be sure to have them reviewed by your legal counsel.  A few (fewer) words could have meant a different and far more difficult result for the school district here.

Is Amazon the Scapegoat in the Debate on Employee Leave Entitlements? What's the Lesson Here for Employers?

Posted in Caring for Family Member, Regulatory Activity

work-life-balanceAmazon has been making headlines lately.  And it’s not because the company is offering generous discounts on Amazon prime delivery.

Over the past few weeks, Amazon has been hit hard in the media after several current and former employees made allegations that the company pushes its employees to the brink and effectively forces out employees who take leaves of absence. 

In a lengthy exposé, the New York Times portrays an Amazon culture where employees are pushed to the limits of what is humanly acceptable, operating in a work environment where they are subjected to the ever-expanding ambitions of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. According to several employees interviewed by the New York Times, employees are:

Encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

By any objective measure, it’s a scathing article, and it is particularly harsh on Mr. Bezos. Other (mostly) former employees have piled on, publicly calling out the company for its alleged mistreatment of employees, particularly those who take parental and other forms of leave.

In response to the New York Times article, Mr. Bezos immediately issued a memo to all Amazon employees rejecting any “shockingly callous management practices” described in the NYT article and urging any employees who knew of the alleged stories depicted in the article to contact him directly.

Insights for Employers

Knee-jerk reactions are aplenty when these kinds of news stories make the rounds. First, let’s take a deep breath. Now, let me share a few observations from my own soapbox:

1.  We Don’t Know What’s Happening at Amazon, so Let’s Not Jump to Conclusions. I have no idea whether any of these Amazon reports are true. I do not work at Amazon, nor do I serve as its counsel (though I have interacted with their leave of absence team and find them to be top-notch). So, I am throwing up the patented Walter Payton stiff-arm to any temptation to jump on the anti-Amazon bandwagon.

Let me say this — I admire a company that pushes its employees to be the very best and challenges them to contribute in the most innovative ways to grow the business. After all, “A” players want to play with other “A” players, and I fear that we often lose sight of this when openly criticizing companies like Amazon without experiencing the environment firsthand. I also respect a leader like Mr. Bezos when he candidly tells shareholders that it’s “not easy to work [at Amazon]” because the stakes are high. He calls it like it is, so employees and candidates alike are on notice of the demands of the job.

If you asked 100 people how they would define “hard work,” you’d get 100 different answers. Personally, I respect Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s rallying call to “Work Hard, Play Hard” in reaching your best potential while achieving life balance. (Mr. Branson also is on the cutting edge of employee leave benefits.) Yet, in complimenting Branson/Virgin, I refuse to knock Mr. Bezos, who has been wildly successful in revolutionizing our marketplace through his company.

2.  Safeguarding Employee Leave Rights is One of the Key Ingredients to a Thriving Workplace. Being the “best,” however, rings hollow when an employer does not play its part in safeguarding its employees’ work and family-life balance.

I use my own experience as an example. Simply put, I have found that I am a far better advocate for and counselor to my employer clients because I am a father of four kids. I am more direct in negotiations, more confident and organized in my approach, and empathetic when it is appropriate. I also believe I am far more determined to succeed, in large part because I know I have a family to provide for.

I am fortunate enough to work for a law firm that celebrates the fact that I am a dad and have a family I need to provide and care for. Is this common in the legal arena? Not as common as it should be.

Don’t get me wrong — am I disappointed when I lose a colleague for a period of time because of parental leave or because they have to care for a severely ill parent? In a word, yes — just as much as I regret losing any colleague who leaves work for a period of time. But I also recognize their time away as priceless — whether it’s that precious time to bond with their new child, attend to their own illnes or walk together with their loved one at the end of life’s journey — I know they will be far healthier and stronger legal counselors as a result.

As employers, we surely have the right to demand the very best from our employees, as we have invested much in their and our success. But when we do so while also ensuring employees’ family life a priority, it’s a powerful thing. And workplaces thrive as a result.

Requiring an Employee to Return from FMLA Leave "Without Restrictions" or "Fully Healed" Is Playing with Fire

Posted in ADA, Court Decisions

no restrictionsDo you know what happens when you maintain a policy or practice that requires an employee to return to work without restrictions or “100% healed”?  You pay.  A lot.

Just ask Brookdale Senior Living Communities. Brookdale employed Bernadine, who suffered from fibromyalgia. According to the EEOC, Brookdale refused Bernadine’s accommodation requests for a temporary modified work schedule, an ergonomic chair, and adjustments to the lighting in her office.

The EEOC also alleged that the Company required Bernadine to remain on “full FMLA until she [was] fully released.”  In other words, she could only return if she was able to perform her job without any restrictions or accommodations. Brookdale later terminated Bernadine, contending that the employee caused a breakdown in the reasonable accommodation process.

The EEOC later brought suit on behalf of Bernadine, claiming that the Company’s failure to accommodate and its alleged requirement that Bernadine return “fully released” violated the ADA.  Access the EEOC’s lawsuit here.

Of course, these are simply the EEOC’s allegations, and we’ll never get to the truth, since Brookdale and EEOC agreed to settle the case before any discovery occurred.  As part of the resolution, as explained in an EEOC press release, Brookdale is required to:

1.  Pay $112,500 to Bernadine as alleged back pay and alleged compensatory damages.

2.  Train all local employees and managers on the ADA’s requirements, including the need to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities.

3.  Report to the EEOC if there are any complaints of disability discrimination or retaliation.

What’s the Problem with a “Fully Released” Approach? 

Whether or not Brookdale engaged in the conduct alleged by EEOC, this scenario is instructive. When employers require that employees be “fully released” or “100% healed” before returning to work, the far majority of courts have found that these policies and practices discriminate against employees with disabilities who may be able to perform the essential functions of their position with or without a reasonable accommodation.  To be clear, the ADA requires employers to make an individualized assessment when deciding whether an employee can return.  When employers implement a “100% healed” policy, most courts find that employers improperly bypassed the individualized assessment process.  Under these policies, the employer simply presumes that the employee is unable to perform the duties of his or her job without properly considering whether the employee’s restrictions can be accommodated.  And such an approach raises the ire of the EEOC.

At a minimum, the problem with this practice is two-fold: 1) it bypasses the process requiring an employer to make an individualized assessment under the ADA to determine whether an accommodation can be provided to help the employee return to work; and 2) it increases the chance that the employer will have found to perceive the employee as disabled.

Insights for Employers

All too often, I come across my clients’ policies or practices that require an employee to return to work only after they are 100% healed or without restrictions.  Here’s my periodic reminder to employers: STOP!

Enforcing these types of policies or requiring evidence that employees can return to work “without restrictions” takes on a tremendous amount of risk.  Far too much risk, in my opinion.  Therefore, employers must re-evaluate these practices and implement policies that provide for individualized assessments of an employee’s ability to return to work with or without a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  In light of the EEOC’s recent litigation in this area, including the most recent one against Brookdale, this approach is imperative.

Naturally, this means employers also must do an effective job of obtaining medical information to which they are legally entitled so that they can make the most informed decisions about: 1) the employee’s ability to return to work; and 2) whether an accommodation may help the employee perform the job.  Thus, in the context of FMLA, employers should engage in a consistent and regular practice of requiring all employees returning from FMLA leave to provide a fitness-for-duty certification from their health care provider that confirms their ability to return to work and perform the essential functions of their job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, and inviting a conversation about what assistance they might require to return to work.  If you remember the report of my presentation with EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum last year, this communication is critical to remain compliant, and it should come early and often.

A Cruise Aboard the Love Boat is Not Protected by the FMLA, Even When the Doc Says It's a Good Idea

Posted in Abuse of FMLA leave, Court Decisions, Interference

Love-BoatThis post has nothing to do with Netflix and its new, generous parental leave policy.  Or GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s latest position on paid leave. Sorry to disappoint.

But it does involve an exotic boat cruise. And of course, the FMLA. Tantalizing? Jump aboard the Love Boat to find out…

The Facts

Lucy worked for the State of Washington Employment Security Department.  During her employment, Lucy suffered from and was given intermittent FMLA leave for migraine headaches, a condition which is covered by the FMLA.  The following year, in January 2011, Lucy submitted a doctor’s note excusing her from work for a two-week period for “FMLA vacation,” presumably because of her migraines.

Per the plan, Lucy headed off a few weeks later on a two-week boat cruise.  Her excursion flew under her employer’s radar until her step-father (huh!?!) unwittingly shared the news with Lucy’s co-worker that Lucy and her husband were spending two weeks away on the Love Boat.  This drew the employer’s skepticism about Lucy’s need for FMLA leave (and likely some expletives, too).  As a result, the employer reached out to Lucy’s doctor directly, expressed “some concern” about the two-week vacation and posed a number of questions to Lucy’s doctor about her medical condition.

The doctor failed to timely respond, and when he finally did, he indicated that Lucy was not incapable of working during the time she was on the cruise.  After her termination, however, Lucy’s physician sent another note to her employer stating, in part:

A common medical practice, which I followed, was to see if a break from the problem for a few weeks would ameliorate [her migraines] . . . I found that the separation did alleviate the problem, by the second week the headaches has dissipated and she was recharged, anxious to return to work . . . .

Lucy was anxious to return to work, I’m sure.

Waiting for Lucy upon her return to work was a 12-page termination letter citing six different reasons for her termination. [Apparently, someone wanted to ensure this termination would stick.] Among other reasons, the Department terminated Lucy’s employment because she “inappropriately and in violation of agency policy took a pre-arranged cruise,” which was not related to the FMLA.

A termination decision that makes perfect sense.

cruiseThe Ruling

After her termination, Lucy filed an FMLA interference claim, but she needed far more than a life preserver to save her claim.  The court quickly dismissed her FMLA lawsuit, finding that: 1) Lucy presented no evidence that actually she was incapacitated from working while she was gone from work; and 2) there was no evidence that a two-week cruise was medically necessary to deal with her migraines. Notably, the doctor’s response indicated that he did not consider Lucy incapacitated during the two-week period and that he was approving “FMLA vacation” time simply because Lucy told him she had vacation time available to her.  These admissions undermined Lucy’s FMLA claims, effectively leaving her stranded at sea. Fitterer v. State of Washington Employment Security Department

Insights for Employers

A few useful takeaways for employers here:

1.  Some time back, one of my clients was wrestling with a similar situation — a doctor who submitted a note approving a trip to Disney World to alleviate an employee’s stress, which was causing her to miss work.  [Not that there’s anything wrong with Disney — it’s a most magical place, as one of my previous posts attests!]  My client relented, ultimately allowing the employee to take the Disney trip and declining to contest its medical necessity.  This decision gives employers in my client’s situation the courage to stand up to situations like these that absolutely smack of FMLA abuse.  In short, if the employee is not incapacitated and is not seeking treatment wherever she is heading, her absences do not trigger the FMLA, and they should be treated as such.

2. Use the FMLA tools available to you to obtain more information about the medical condition and the certification.  Here, it seems apparent that the employer did not ask any follow-up questions when it received a doctor’s note excusing Lucy for “FMLA vacation.”  Some basic questions come to mind: What’s the reason for a two-week “FMLA vacation”? Will she be unable to work during this time period?  Will she be seeking treatment?  The employer asked these questions only after it learned that she was on a cruise. In some situations, however, this might be too late.

3.  Be extremely careful about contacting the employee’s health care provider directly without the employee’s permission.  Under the FMLA regulations, employers may contact a health care provider directly only to authenticate or clarify certification.  Here, the employer arguably was clarifying Lucy’s certification and need for FMLA leave, a communication that must have been approved first by Lucy (through a HIPAA-complaint release).  The employer arguably committed a technical violation of the FMLA in reaching out to Lucy’s physician without her permission, which, in turn, could have undermined its defense against Lucy’s FMLA claims. Don’t make this mistake — clarifying certification must be approved by the employee in advance and in writing.

4.  With number 3 above in mind, I still admire the employer for informing the physician of its “concern” about whether Lucy’s cruise was consistent with her need for FMLA leave and asking him to answer a series of questions about Lucy’s medical condition (all within FMLA bounds assuming they first obtained her permission to do so).  I encourage my clients to use similar and blunt terminology and questions to discuss suspected FMLA abuse with an employee’s health care provider, as it suggests that the employer is taking the employee’s absences/patterns seriously and that it’s not a situation to be taken for granted.

DOL and EEOC Explain How They Will Approach FMLA and Reasonable Accommodation Enforcement

Posted in ADA, Regulatory Activity

Employment-Word-Cloud-300x152This week, I had the pleasure of presenting with Department of Labor and EEOC officials on key developments out of Washington with respect to leave management and accommodations.  Our presentation was part of the annual conference of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. If you’re an employer and not a member of DMEC, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Find out more about the organization here.

What’s on DOL’s Mind in 2015 and 2016?

Helen Applewhaite, the DOL’s Branch Chief for FMLA, presented on DOL enforcement initiates in the FMLA arena, and I offered comments from the peanut gallery on the practical impact on employers in light of these initiatives.  Here are the takeaways:

1.  DOL’s Focus on Systemic Compliance Issues is Top Priority.  The DOL is focusing its attention on systemic FMLA problems.  What this means is that DOL is broadening its FMLA enforcement to identify compliance problems that impact multiple employees and multiple employer locations.

EEOC has made a killing off investigating systemic issues, often leading to costly and burdensome investigations and litigation. For the foreseeable future, we can expect the same from DOL — broad and burdensome requests for information that cover multiple years and locations and a wide range of personnel actions.  Why?  Because this is already happening.  Over the past couple of years, the DOL’s information requests have covered a several- year period, and the agency typically requests data on all leave requests, grants and denials over that period, among a host of other subject areas. In a previous post, I included samples of information requests my clients have received in the past, like this burdensome one from the DOL.  Yep, they’re ugly.

What’s an Employer to do?  Friends, we must conduct self-audits of our FMLA processes and recordkeeping.  Now.  This means we must ensure that our FMLA policies, forms and correspondence are up to snuff, and that our FMLA processes are compliant.  In a previous post, I included specific recommendations on what our self-audit should look like.  [Shameless plug alert: I offer these self-audits through our CALM service.]

2.  Avoid these Common Errors.  Applewhaite identified several compliance problems that pop up regularly during DOL investigations:

  • Employers’ inability to recognize the need for FMLA leave and then disciplining employees for an absence that should be covered by FMLA
  • Failing to meet notice deadlines established by the FMLA
  • Failing to properly administer medical certification, including requests for recertification more frequently than permitted

The first bullet point is particularly troublesome, as I find that many front-line managers simply are not properly trained to recognize when an employee has provided sufficient facts to trigger the FMLA and to take appropriate steps to respond to the employee’s request.  In my experience, this is perhaps the single biggest problem for employers, as it creates easy liability.

As I’ve warned employers before, there are far too many examples of employers who have paid out a whole lot of money because their manager said something foolish about FMLA, did not properly handle an absence covered by FMLA, or did not follow the FMLA regulations. Managers at all levels drastically increase your liability when it comes to FMLA when they are not trained in the FMLA. Training them now immediately reduces your risk of liability — both in court and as a result of a DOL investigation.

3.  New Same-Sex Spouse Rule: Yawn!  Applewhaite briefly discussed the DOL’s recent regulatory change which edited the definition of spouse to include same-sex marriage.  As I told my DMEC friends, this regulatory change should not create any administrative concerns for us.  Simply put, we administer leave for a same-sex spouse in the same manner we administer leave for a heterosexual spouse.  Case closed.

For more information on the DOL’s same-sex spouse regulation changes, see my post here.

And the EEOC…

Pierce Blue, Attorney and Special Assistant to EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, and I spent some time analyzing the implications of the Young v. UPS case, which expanded the potential for pregnant employees to secure workplace accommodations.

The EEOC has modestly edited its pregnancy discrimination guidance in light of the Young decision, but there is otherwise not much new news to share on the pregnancy accommodation front, as the lower courts generally have not yet applied the Young balancing test to real life situations.

That said, an early read on courts which have followed the Young reasoning suggests that employees may be given some latitude in advancing their case when alleging that the employer did not provide a requested accommodation during their pregnancy.  In one such case, Bray v. Town of Wake Forest, an employee defeated an early motion to dismiss her sex discrimination claim after her employer refused to assign her light duty work during her pregnancy.  The plaintiff, Erin Bray, was a Wake Forest police officer, and she provided a doctor’s note during her pregnancy limiting her to light duty positions. Shortly thereafter, Erin was terminated because she could not perform the essential functions of her position as a police officer.

The court refused to dismiss Erin’s sex discrimination claim, finding that, on two occasions, male police officers were allowed to perform light duty, apparently because they were injured on the job. In finding two other accommodations sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, the court took a rather liberal reading of the Young case, but in any event, it indicates that even the slightest difference in how accommodations are distributed may very well breathe life into a gender discrimination claim.  Remember the key question raised by the Young court: “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate the pregnant women as well?

Apparently, in Bray’s case, “so many” may simply equal two.  If so, employers better watch out.

Please Nominate FMLA Insights for the ABA Blawg 100

Posted in Uncategorized

man-beggingDear fellow FMLA aficionados:

Can I get your vote?  What if I promised that it would only take 30 seconds out of your day, or less than the time it would take to read one of my rambling blog posts?

Last year, for the 4th consecutive year, our little FMLA blog was named one of the top 100 legal blogs by the ABA Journal. Voting is now open for the best legal blogs of 2015, and we would love to have your support!

If our FMLA Insights blog has been helpful to you in navigating the FMLA (or if you find it practically useless but nevertheless humorous in a cheesy kind of way), we would be forever grateful if you took a moment to nominate us for this year’s Blawg 100. Nominating our blog could not be any easier. Click this link and complete the (very brief) questions asked. You will be asked to provide your contact information and a simple statement about why you’re a fan of FMLA Insights.  If you include a memorable (or even corny) line or two about why the blog adds value to your professional life, the ABA Journal might even highlight your quote!

The online form also asks you to identify your favorite blog entry over the past year. What was your favorite? Perhaps it was the post about how employers deal with an employee who uses FMLA leave to shirk overtime duty; our practical insight on how employers should implement the new same-sex spouse regulations; our extensive coverage of an employer’s obligation to provide accommodations to pregnant employees; or our opinion about whether an employer should send FMLA notices by mail, email or carrier pigeon in light of some rather odd recent court decisions.

Perhaps it’s that I am comfortable enough talking about how sperm and the FMLA (somehow) are connected.  Or maybe you simply respect the fact that I offer my FMLA and ADA counseling services for a reasonable and competitive flat monthly fee and then blog about it (damn, two shameless plugs in one blog post!).

Any of these blog posts (and plenty of others!) work for this nomination.  Nominations must be submitted by Sunday, August 16, 2015.

If you have any feedback on our FMLA Insights blog and how we might get your vote in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me: jsn@franczek.com.

Of course, I welcome your nomination. But more importantly, I am humbled by the feedback you provide nearly every day — whether it’s an email, social media shout out, or simply saying hello at a conference, I am humbled by your support of the blog.

I am indeed forever grateful.


Need To Investigate Employee Misconduct While the Employee is on FMLA Leave? Follow This Employer's Lead

Posted in Uncategorized

investigateEven once in awhile an employer has handled an FMLA situation so effectively, you just want to shout out, “You Go Girl!” . . . or let out a fist pump (like you just sank a 70-foot birdie) . . . or initiate a wild chest bump in the hallway with a colleague (after you just landed that new client).

This is one of those cases.

Employers often struggle with handling an internal workplace investigation or issuing discipline where the employee in question has played the good ‘ol FMLA card just as you are about to investigate misconduct or issue discipline.  This story below proves that the FMLA cannot be used as a shield to ward off legitimate discipline.

The Facts

Andrew was a middle school teacher who somehow was involved in an incident with a student in a school hallway.  The student claimed that Andrew grabbed her by the arms, shook her, and pinned her against a wall.  Andrew, of course, had a different story.  After a state-required child protective services investigation, the state cleared him of any charges.  However, per school district policy, the school board conducted its own investigation (at the same time) focusing on whether Andrew had violated any school policy during his interaction with the student.

During the investigation, Andrew took FMLA leave because of reported stress, anxiety and high blood pressure. He returned to work sporadically over the next couple of months, but had panic attacks at work, apparently after being “berated” by the school principal.  While Andrew was on leave, the school ordered him to report to work on one occasion to participate in the ongoing board investigation and on one other day to participate in a disciplinary conference.  In that conference, he was issued a written reprimand for “engaging in physical contact by using a technique that escalated a situation that could have been handled differently.”

Before eventually returning to teach, Andrew submitted a doctor’s note requesting assignment to a different school in the district because returning to the same school could spur “panic attacks and other manifestations of his illness.” Per the request, the school district assigned Andrew to new school and returned him to work (after he had more than exhausted his 12 weeks of FMLA leave).

All good, right?


Andrew sued the district. Whaaat!?!

Andrew claimed the school district interfered with his FMLA leave when it required him to : 1) report to work to participate in the internal investigation; 2) attend appointments with other doctors; and 3) return to a different school that included children with behavioral issues.

The Ruling

The trial court (and appellate court) both smelled a rat, and they quickly dismissed Andrew’s FMLA claims.  You can read the court decision here, but I weave the court’s reasoning into my insights below. Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools

Insights for Employers

This decision provides a few golden nuggets for employers’ FMLA administration.  Let’s discuss:

1.  Employers often are gun shy about conducting workplace investigations or taking disciplinary action against an employee while the employee is on FMLA leave.  This approach is understandable, as employers are worried about the appearance of retaliation because the employee may claim (as he did here) that the employer took action on the heels of an employee’s request for FMLA leave.

Note the court’s words here: “There is no absolute right to restoration to a prior employment decision.”  In other words, carry on with your internal investigations and disciplinary measures so long as you can show that you would have done the same absent any request for FMLA leave.  In fact, employers arguably have a duty to conduct a prompt investigation into allegations of this kind.  As the court pointed out, employers (and schools in particular) have an obligation to investigate and address serious allegations of employee misconduct “or else face accusations and lawsuits for not looking promptly into allegations of improper” conduct of its employees.

2.  You can indeed ask an employee during his FMLA leave to report to work to participate in an internal investigation.  Within reason, of course.  Heed the court’s guidance here:

In certain circumstances, required meetings may unlawfully interrupt an employee’s leave.  Here, however, the one-time conference was a legitimate piece of an ongoing investigation into the January 19 incident between Adams and the student.

. . . the record here points to a standard procedure during which due process was accorded to Adams every step along the way.

A common sense, thoughtful approach by the court.  In other words, if an employer follows its standard internal investigation procedures (which means you should have these procedures in place!) and affords a level of due process during the investigation to the employee, a court will endorse your process.  I like it.

In situations like these, however, I recommend that employers not count the investigatory meeting with the employee against his FMLA allotment, since he reported to work on this occasion.

3.  A closer call here is that the school district apparently required the employee to attend three different medical appointments as part of the FMLA’s second opinion process.  Interesting angle. We often find in unionized environments that employers have the right (under the collective bargaining agreement) to send employees off for fitness-for-duty exams separate and apart from the FMLA process.  As the court did here, these provisions generally are upheld.  But let the employer beware — I would advise against multiple “second” opinions unless you are in close contact with your legal counsel.

In the meantime, my hat’s off to the Anne Arundel County School District for a job well done.  You gave the rest of us employers a good model to follow.

FMLA FAQ: Must an Employer Provide Intermittent FMLA Leave So An Employee Can Attend to an Autistic Child?

Posted in ADA, Caring for Family Member, FMLA FAQs

autismQ:  One of our employees, a front desk receptionist, maintains an erratic work schedule because she must attend to her autistic son.  In short, her son throws a tantrum at school if his mom does not personally drop him off and pick him up from school.  For instance, he hides under a table, refuses to participate, and becomes very aggressive when his mom doesn’t not drop him off and pick him up.

The difficulty we have is this — our employee not only misses the first hour of work and another hour in the middle of the work day, but she claims she needs the entire day off to attend to her son.  First, is autism a serious health condition under the FMLA? And if so, are there any limitations we can place on the employee’s need for FMLA leave in these situations?

A: These are not uncommon questions posed by employers, who wonder whether they are required to provide intermittent FMLA leave to an employee in this kind of situation.

To be clear, employers generally don’t deny that autism is a serious health condition (since it often is considered a disability under the ADA). However, employers struggle with an employee’s unpredictable attendance in situations where it presents a burden on staffing, like the example above.

Is Autism a Serious Health Condition?

Generally speaking, courts have found that autism is a serious health condition.

As we know, an otherwise eligible employee can take leave to care for a child with a serious health condition.  Under the FMLA regulations, a serious health condition  includes a period of incapacity which is “permanent or long-term due to a condition for which treatment may not be effective.” A “period of incapacity” includes the inability to attend school or perform other regular daily activities due to the serious health condition, including treatment or recovery.  29 C.F.R. § 825.114.

In the example above, there appears to be sufficient facts for a jury to conclude that the employee’s son likely suffers from a serious health condition because he is has a permanent medical condition rendering him unable to participate at school in certain situations.

If Autism is a Serious Health Condition, are there any limitations we can place on the employee’s need for leave?

Put aside the question about whether autism is a serious health condition, as that’s a definition over which the attorneys can argue.  What you’re really worried about is whether your front reception desk gets properly staffed and whether you have to accept your employee’s erratic schedule on days when she tells you she must attend to her son.  In short, there are not many limitations you can place on your employee if they need FMLA leave in these situations to care for her son.  But there are tools available to employers:

1.  Analyze the medical certification.  In many instances, the certification will articulate the kind of care the employee is required to provide to the autistic child.  Does the certification appear to cover the need for transport, drop off and pick up?  If it is unclear, follow the FMLA’s cure process to obtain the information you need.

2.  Rein in the excess time off.  Does the certification require your employee to take the entire workday off (or even a significant portion of the workday) for trips to school with her son at 8am and at 2pm?  If so, why does the certification make such a pronouncement?

Assuming the cert does not contain this information, the employer should consider having a candid conversation with the employee about the need for leave for the entire or even a significant portion of the workday.  Keep in mind that intermittent leave is required only where it is medically necessary. FMLA leave from work from the period of ~9am to 2pm does not appear to be medically necessary, so if you can’t come to an understanding with your employee as to the additional time during the workday, employers should require that the employee cure the certification (to obtain additional information about the need for leave), and clarify the certification, if necessary.

Hat tip: Thanks to Linda Croushore for suggesting that I address this question on my blog!

Now That Same-Sex Marriage is a Constitutional Right, How Do Employers Administer FMLA Leave?

Posted in Court Decisions, Eligibility, Regulatory Activity

gay marriageOn Friday, June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

So, I’ll give you one guess as to the topic of my blog post today.

How is the FMLA Impacted by the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage?

Earlier this year, the Department of Labor issued a final rule allowing an otherwise eligible employee to take FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse, regardless of whether the employee lives in a state that recognized their marital status.  Now that the Supreme Court has declared that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right, states can no longer prohibit same-sex marriage.  Obergefell v. Hodges (pdf)

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, it appears any questions regarding the DOL’s Final Rule have been all but eliminated.  This means that employers must permit eligible employees to take FMLA leave to care for their same-sex spouse with a serious health condition, for qualifying exigency leave if the spouse is being deployed and other qualifying reasons.

What About the Four States Covered by the Texas Court Decision Halting Issuance of the DOL’s Final Rule?

As  I reported in a previous post, four states (Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska) obtained an injunction stopping enforcement of the DOL’s final rule. Although we don’t know how these four states will proceed in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Court’s decision validates the DOL’s definition of “spouse.” The DOL has not yet issued any statement on enforcement in these four states, but employers in these states that elect not to provide FMLA leave to same-sex spouses are taking on significant risk.

What Do Employers Need to do Now?

In another of my previous posts, I gave employers extensive guidance on what they should do in light of the new DOL rule on same-sex spouses. Among other things, employers should:

1. Update FMLA policies and forms.

2. Train supervisors and administrators on the new rule.

3. Determine whether any state leave law applies, as they may differ on their definitions of same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, and may offer different leave rights depending on the protected category.

4. Be mindful that the DOL’s new rule covers individuals who enter into a same-sex marriage. However, the FMLA does not protect civil unions or domestic partnerships, so employers are well advised to determine whether FMLA applies in any particular situation.  That said, employers are free to provide greater leave rights than those provided for under the FMLA.