There is No Finer Valentine's Day Gift: the ABA's Summary of 2017 FMLA Court Decisions!

Posted in Court Decisions

My fellow gentlemen:

On this Valentine’s Day, I just saved your behind.

Leave the dozen roses and box of chocolates at the office. And no need to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant for two.

This year, give your significant other the gift that keeps on giving: the American Bar Association’s annual report of every FMLA decision from 2017.  If this won’t spice up your Valentine’s evening, I am confident nothing will.

Every February, the ABA’s Federal Labor Standards Legislation Committee publishes a comprehensive report of FMLA decisions handed down by the federal courts in the previous year.  Although our little FMLA blog catches some of the key FMLA cases as they occur throughout the year, the ABA’s annual report includes every FMLA decision issued in 2017.

Every. single. one. of. them.

This year’s report was just released and can be accessed here (pdf). I highly recommend it as a valuable FMLA resource for HR professionals and employment attorneys. All the credit goes to Maria Audero, who spearheads the annual summary.

Happy reading!

On This 25th Birthday of the FMLA, An Open Letter to Employers, Employees and the DOL

Posted in Abuse of FMLA leave, DOL Initiatives, Paid Leave

The Nowak kids invited some friends over for Super Bowl Sunday. But the party really got started when we broke out the FMLA birthday cake!

Happy 25th birthday, FMLA! 

As you might imagine, there may not be a more exciting day for me all year. After all, there is only one day ever in which my favorite federal statute celebrates its silver anniversary! Picture me getting my inner Jimmy Stewart on (after Clarence the Angel had just saved him), shouting through the streets of small town Chicago, “Happy birthday you wonderful old FMLA!

In fact, it’s been a full weekend celebration at the Nowak abode. I’ve been singing Bill Withers to the Nowak kids all weekend: “Lean on Me, F – M – L – A . . . And I’ll be your friend . . . ” [To my dismay, the kids have never been more eager for Monday morning to arrive.]  And yes, we even broke out the 25th birthday cake in honor of the FMLA. (See photo at right.)

Where Have We Been, Where are We Going?

In all seriousness, this is a critical moment.  Back on February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law. This groundbreaking law has allowed new parents time off from their job to bond with their children and afforded workers time away to care for gravely ill family members or recover from their own serious health problems — all without fear of losing their jobs.

Yet, 25 years later, there is still much work to be done.  We need to do more to protect employers’ interests, but the employer community also must take a big step forward and and offer some meaningful level of paid FMLA leave to our employees. [They should do if for no other reason that the tide is surely turning.] Conversely, employees must understand their role in safeguarding the FMLA by using time away from work with integrity and only for the reasons intended under federal law.

On this special day, I’ve taken the liberty of penning an open letter to all FMLA stakeholders — employers, employees, and the Department of Labor itself. Take it for what it’s worth, but I hope it adds some value to our ongoing discussions.

*  *  *  *

Dear Employers:

Count me among the lucky ones the law has benefited: Several years back, the FMLA afforded me a leave of absence as I held my father’s hand and comforted him in the days before he died of cancer. It also allowed me time to be with my four beautiful children after they were born. Like many employers, my law firm supported my need to be away from work — it didn’t require a federal law to mandate my leave time. And it paid for my time to be with my dad in his last days.

Sure, many employees across America enjoy the protections of the FMLA, but they use it without the benefit of a paycheck because there is no federal mandate for paid leave.

Employers, as we celebrate 25 years of FMLA goodness, it’s time to change the course of history. Follow the lead of employers like an old client of mine, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, and provide a meaningful level of paid FMLA leave to your employees. This past month, the YWCA announced that it would pay for the first six weeks of an employee’s 12 weeks of FMLA leave. YWCA joins a growing number of employers who are helping the American workplace align itself with the industrialized world. Good for you, YWCA, as well as the many other American employers doing the same.

Why do this? There is plenty to be gained by adopting paid FMLA leave — affirming a commitment to work/life balance, improving your recruitment and retention of the best candidates, boosting employee morale. And as I suggested in a prior post, it’s simply the right thing to do.

For those employers open to expanding their minds on this topic, it’s also worth taking a look at the resources offered by the National Partnership for Women and Families, which has set up a unique web page for advancing paid FMLA leave.

Finally, as the Washington Post reports in a rather compelling article:

[The lack of paid leave] is bad for working mothers, who need time to recover from the physical and mental trauma of childbirth. It’s bad for kids, who need extra attention and care in the crucial months after birth. And it’s bad for the economy: Research has shown that paid maternity leave is associated with better job performance and retention among mothers, increased family incomes, and increased economic growth.

There’s never been a better time to offer paid leave:

  • As of January 2018, employers now earn a tax credit when voluntarily providing paid FMLA leave. The credit will range from 12.5 to 25% of the cost of each hour of paid leave, depending on how much of a worker’s regular earnings the benefit replaces. The federal government will cover 12.5 percent of the benefit’s costs if workers receive half of their regular earnings, increasing up to 25 percent if workers receive their entire regular earnings.
  • I’ve even drafted a recommended paid FMLA policy for you.  Last year, I partnered with non-profit organization Panorama to prepare such a policy, which can be accessed (for free!) here.

*  *  *  *

Dear Employees:

It is not lost on me that the FMLA celebrates its 25th birthday on the day after Super Bowl Sunday — a day that is unrivaled for employees calling in sick and abusing FMLA leave. Indeed, physicians across the country will spend much of their time today writing doctor’s notes and completing medical certification, all in an effort to excuse Johnny for missing work.

This kind of abuse stinks to high heaven, and it’s one of the reasons employers have long grown cynical of your need for FMLA leave. Sure, employers understand the need for time off work after the birth of a child or for severe illnesses that will wipe you out from time to time.

But the stories get old — using FMLA leave because you’ve been out partying too much the night before or to extend your Florida beach vacation.  This past year, I even counseled one of my clients through a situation where one of their employees took FMLA leave to cover the very period of time he served time in the county jail for a DUI conviction.

Employers want to feel the love again. But you’ll only earn this love by:

  • Timely notifying your employer of the need for FMLA leave
  • Being honest and having the utmost integrity in using FMLA leave only for its intended purpose
  • Being a true partner with your employer in obtaining (timely and complete) certification to support your need for FMLA leave

‘Nuf said.  You get my point.  Now, get back to work!

*  *  *  *

Dear Department of Labor:

You crazy little rascal! You’ve kept us on our toes for decades now with a well-intentioned federal statute but some awfully vague and ambiguous regulations that tend to cause us fits.

How ’bout we celebrate the FMLA’s silver birthday with a few meaningful changes to those regulations that are particularly pesky? Let’s start with a few (or many):

  • As for medical certification, I have several changes to recommend:
    • When a certification is provided after the 15-day deadline, it’s late. Simple as that. However, when the employee has no excuse and doesn’t turn in the certification in a timely manner, the FMLA regulations (at 29 CFR 825.313) tell us that we can discipline the employee only for the days following Day 15. That’s kooky talk, and it has no basis in the statute. If the employee turns in a late certification without excuse, the employer should be able to discipline back to Day 1 of the absence, not as of Day 16.  [Hat tip to my fellow FMLA nerd, Megan Holstein]
    • Allow employers to require that a specialist complete the certification. This worked well in a case I highlighted last year, as it ensures that the appropriate physician who is treating the employee and is most familiar with the medical condition is indeed the professional completing the form.
    • When recertification undermines an employee’s frequency or duration of FMLA leave, why not tell us in as clear a manner as possible that the employee can be disciplined for the excessive absences? Right now, you offer us no guidance.
  • When considering the “in loco parentis” standard, the “child” you are caring for actually should resemble a parent/child relationship.  Over the years, you’ve watered down this standard so much that, as long as you’re providing day to day care or financial support it doesn’t matter. And if the child is 18 or older, he/she just needs to meet the “activities of daily living” test and you’re off to the races, regardless of whether that child is a fiancé, a neighbor or the friend at the local tavern. Ok, maybe not that last one, but yeah, kinda.  [Hat tip to my FMLA bwudda, Matt Morris]
  • Allow second opinions even in recertification situations. Do employees misuse leave only at the beginning of the FMLA year? Heck no. Some misuse leave throughout the year. Second opinions throughout the year make perfect sense to ensure the employee continues to utilize FMLA leave for a legitimate reason.
  • Make the “varying work week” far more meaningful and practical. First, allow it to apply to much broader categories of employees. Second, base the 12-month average not on “hours scheduled” [duh, we have this rule because we don’t know what their schedule is in the first place] but on “hours worked” over 12 months (much better).  [Hat tip to my FMLA partner-in crime, Marti Cardi]
  • Allow transfer to an equivalent position during any type of intermittent leave, not just for planned medical treatment. Time and again my clients complain that the lack of an undue hardship argument under FMLA wreaks havoc on their operations, as they are unable to fill a position until the employee returns from leave.

P.S. Remember about six months ago when you promised you’d again provide us opinion letters to bring more clarity and meaning to the FMLA regulations? Ahem, we’re waiting . . .

*  *  *  *

That’s good enough for now, even if I could go on for days. If you could change one FMLA regulation, what would it be?

In the meantime, I offer best wishes for the happiest of FMLA birthday celebrations in workplaces across America! Send me your celebratory photos!

FMLA FAQ: When Is an Employer Required to Check for FMLA Eligibility? The Answer May Surprise You!

Posted in Eligibility, FMLA FAQs

Every once in awhile, my posts must return to the nuts and bolts of FMLA, and this is one of ‘dem ‘dere posts. After all, I can’t always cover scintillating topics such as Beyonce concerts, bullies who abuse FMLA leave and whether FMLA covers excess trips to the potty.

Yet, the FMLA topic de jour is no less important because I address below an issue critical to FMLA compliance:  How often must an employer check an employee’s eligibility for FMLA leave?

Screw it up and you could be looking at significant FMLA liability. Get it correct and you have just saved your boss hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and a possible judgment (for which he/she may never thank you).

As we recently have turned the calendar to a new year, this article is particularly important to my peeps out there who track FMLA leave based on a calendar year. But I cover all the 12-month FMLA periods below:

First, Let’s Start with the Rule

Whenever an employee requests FMLA leave, the employer first must check whether the employee is eligible for FMLA leave.  The critical rule is at 29 CFR 825.300(b)(1):

Eligibility notice. When an employee requests FMLA leave, or when the employer acquires knowledge that an employee’s leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the employer must notify the employee of the employee’s eligibility to take FMLA leave within five business days, absent extenuating circumstances. . . Employee eligibility is determined (and notice must be provided) at the commencement of the first instance of leave for each FMLA-qualifying reason in the applicable 12-month period . . . All FMLA absences for the same qualifying reason are considered a single leave and employee eligibility as to that reason for leave does not change during the applicable 12-month period.  (My emphasis)

What are the takeaways from this Rule?

There are two:

  1. The employer must check eligibility at the first instance of FMLA leave for each different FMLA reason in a 12-month FMLA period.
  2. Once eligibility is established for a particular FMLA reason, eligibility for FMLA leave as to that reason does not change for the remainder of the FMLA year.

I illustrate this rule the only way I know how — through examples.

Rolling year

Let’s assume you use a rolling FMLA year (or look back period).  Let’s further assume that your employee, Johnny, requests leave to begin on the following days:

  • Intermittent leave for migraine headaches as of March 2, 2017
  • Intermittent leave for chronic bad back as of November 17, 2017
  • Continuous leave of absence for back surgery (to fix said bad back) on December 13, 2017

When do you check eligibility for these leave requests? First, you check eligibility as of March 2, 2017 (the date leave begins for migraines) because it is the first time in the FMLA year that Johnny needs leave for migraines.  Second, you check eligibility again as of November 17, 2017 (the date leave begins for the bad back) because it is the first time in the FMLA year that Johnny needs leave for his bad back.

How long is FMLA Eligibility good for?

Let’s assume Johnny is FMLA-eligible on both of these dates for migraines and the bad back, respectively.  In a rolling year, FMLA eligibility for each condition remains in place for the 12-month period beginning with the first day of leave for the condition.  So, for migraines, Johnny’s is FMLA eligible through March 1, 2018.  Therefore, we would not check eligibility again until he needs leave for migraines the first time on or after March 2, 2018.  For his bad back, Johnny’s eligibility is all clear through November 16, 2018.  We would not check eligibility for his back until he needs leave again for this condition the first time on or after November 17, 2018.

Does the Need for Continuous vs. Intermittent Leave Change Things?

What about the continuous leave Johnny required for surgery on his bad back in December 2017? Shouldn’t we check eligibility because he’s now seeking a continuous (instead of intermittent) period of leave?  In a word, no.  Once Johnny became eligible for FMLA leave for his bad back, he maintains eligibility for that same reason for the remainder of the FMLA year.  The fact that the need for leave changed from intermittent to continuous doesn’t change the reason for the leave, so eligibility need not be checked until November 2018 or after.

Calendar year or fixed year

Checking eligibility is generally the same when you maintain a 12-month FMLA period based on a calendar year.  If you are using a calendar FMLA year, the key difference is that you will check eligibility for the first instance of leave for each different condition on or after January 1 of each year.

Again to illustrate, let’s go back to the example above.  For Johnny’s bad back, eligibility was first determined as of November 17, 2017. Because you maintain a calendar year FMLA cycle, you will need to check eligibility again upon the first instance of leave for a bad back on or after January 1, 2018.

If Johnny needs leave on January 1 for his back condition, doesn’t it seem a bit strange that you would need to check eligibility for the same reason a mere six weeks after you last checked eligibility? I hear you loud and clear, but we still must follow the regulations, which unambiguously tell us to check eligibility for the first instance of FMLA leave in a new FMLA year. For those FMLA nerds who really want to dive into this topic, take a look at Davis v. Michigan Bell Telephone, in which the court made clear that an employer must check eligibility in the first instance on or after January 1 when the employer is using a calendar year FMLA cycle.

“Look forward” year

Some employers base the 12-month FMLA period on a “look forward” period measured forward from the date any employee’s first FMLA leave. Testing for eligibility is the same as the “rolling year” above. You check eligibility for the first instance of FMLA leave for a particular reason, at which point they are eligible for that reason for the following 12-month period.  Upon the first instance of FMLA leave for this condition in the next FMLA year, eligibility should be checked again.

For what it’s worth, if you need a refresher about which 12-month FMLA period is best to use, and an explanation of all your options, take a look at one of my previous posts on the topic.

Heavy stuff? Naw! This is why employment law is so damn sexy! 

Complying with the FMLA and ADA When Your Employee is Dealing with a Mental Health Condition: A Recap of our Webinar

Posted in ADA, Intermittent Leave, Notice, Webinars

Thanks to those who attended my webinar last week with Matt Morris on “Complying with the FMLA and ADA When Your Employee is Dealing with a Mental Health Condition.”  A link to the recording can be found here, and the presentation can be downloaded here.

To those who attended, thank you.  To those who missed it, you still have time to access the recording.  Matt and I covered a number of issues under both the FMLA and ADA when it comes to managing an employee dealing with a mental health condition.  In particular, we covered:

  • Managing your employee when their mental condition condition is affecting their performance.  Here, we outlined how an employer engages in a two-part conversation to address the issue — first, it’s a performance-based conversation, which allows you to highlight expectations and identify where the employee has fallen short of expectations; and second, it’s the interactive process, in which you engage in the employee in a conversation about what you can do as the employer to help the employee perform their job.  Through the use of characters such as Steve Carell, Pope Francis and Mr. Rogers himself, we offered you practical insight on how you structure these difficult conversations with your employees.
  • Whether an employer can force an employee on leave of absence when their mental health condition clearly is affecting their job but the employee refuses to accept it.
  • How much additional leave (if any) an employer must provide an employee dealing with a mental health condition when they have exhausted FMLA leave.  We analyzed the steps employers should take to obtain information, determine the employee’s ability to return to work and assess the hardship on your operations in deciding whether to grant additional leave or terminate employment.
  • Similarly, how to manage your employee when they are taking unscheduled intermittent leave and it’s affecting your staffing and operations.  Here, we provided practical tips to address these situations before they spiral out of control.
  • Finally, we provided guidance on when you should seek a fitness for duty for your employee and other tips on obtaining medical documentation where an employee’s mental health condition is at issue.

And has become a custom, we ended with a holiday jingle. So, I leave you with my warm regards for a Happy Holiday and peaceful New Year, and the lyrics to the holiday song “Oh Rest Ye FMLA Abusers” which we sung to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by the Bare Naked Ladies (a version which you can listen to or skip on the recording!):

I woke up at 4:30 with a scratched cornea 

It was better than last week, I swore I had a hernia

Oh what excuse I could concoct to avoid my overtime

Oh, tidings of FMLA . . . FMLA . . .Oh, tidings of FMLA

* * *

My doctor’s note made clear I could take off whenever I’d like

That didn’t please my boss, who told me, “Buddy, Go take a Hike!”

I think I’ll find a lawyer, isn’t that the American Way?

Oh, tidings of FMLA . . . FMLA . . .Oh, tidings of FMLA

* * *

Law of Wonder, Law of Light

Law that will help me get out of work tonight

But if I’m not careful, come tomorrow, I’ll need a new worksite

* * *

Thanks again to those who attended the webinar. I look forward to your feedback on the issues we discussed.

Happy Holidays!

FMLA FAQ: If an Employee Racks Up Both FMLA and Unexcused Absences, Can He Be Terminated?

Posted in Abuse of FMLA leave, Intermittent Leave

Here’s a puzzle for you.  How would you handle it?

Mary Beth is a nurse for a local hospital and has been diagnosed with cancer and asthma.  Over the course of about one year:

1. She is certified for FMLA leave for her cancer and asthma;

2. She incurs a total of 13 intermittent absences in a 12-month period;

3. A handful of these absences relate to her cancer and asthma; and

4. Plenty more absences are for various other reasons, including foot pain, a stress fracture in her foot, sore throat, dizziness, common cold, stomach cramps, an upset GI,  and diarrhea.

Sheesh! Some of this stuff is TMI.

In any event, under the hospital’s policies, an employee is subject to termination when they accrue seven absences in a rolling 12-month period.  When Mary Beth reached this grand milestone (and then some), the hospital terminated her employment.

But what about the FMLA absences? Can Mary Beth lawfully be terminated for the non-FMLA absences even though others are FMLA-related?

Many of my clients are paralyzed by this situation. Among other things, they are concerned that: 1) the employee cannot be terminated because it comes during a time period when the employee is using FMLA leave; or 2) the employee will claim after-the-fact that they reported an FMLA-reason for some or all of the absences and that they should not have been considered for the termination.

The Ruling

In Mary Beth’s situation, she was properly terminated, and the court said so.  The court summed up its reasoning quite simply:

Plaintiff was entitled to take leave for [cancer and asthma] under the FMLA, as she had done in 2012 for a brief time period. However, by plaintiff’s own admission, most of her absences between April 2013 and April 2014 were unrelated to her asthma and were unrelated to her bladder cancer . . . FMLA qualified absences aside, plaintiff still missed ten days of work for miscellaneous reasons—three absences more than allowed by defendants prior to termination.

A just result. As the court pointed out, by Mary Beth’s own admission, most of her absences during the time period identified by the employer were unrelated to her asthma and bladder cancer, so they could not have been protected by the FMLA. Bertig v. Julia Ribaudo Healthcare Group (pdf)

Insights for Employers

The Court’s decision to dismiss Mary Beth’s FMLA claims was made easy because the employer did a fabulous job documenting all of Mary Beth’s absences. If employers want the same level of success, two steps are critical:

  1. Document each absence: The Hospital documented each absence and the reasons for the absence on an “Absence or Tardy” report (see copy on the right).  In this report, the employee’s supervisor documented the reason for each absence/tardy along with additional details about the absence.  These reports later are golden when the employer is considering termination, as we now have an actual document explaining why an employee was absent on a particular occasion.  It takes some work, of course, but it’s highly effective. Let’s face it: Some of you “log” all your call-ins for in some book or the back of a napkin that never sees the light of day. Work with your employment counsel to construct a system for logging calls which sufficient information about the absence and a review by an HR or a leave administrator so that the employer follows up with the employee on potential FMLA-related absences.
  2. Audit Absences at the Time of Termination. Before you hit the termination button on an employee due to attendance issues, conduct an audit of all the absences serving as the basis for the termination decision and confirm with documentation (see your new logging system above) that none of these absences could have been covered by the FMLA or ADA. If there is any doubt about whether one or more days could have been covered by FMLA, ask the employee about the absence.
  3. Don’t forget progressive discipline and the interactive process. As Mary Beth accrues unexcused absences, are you talking to her about your attendance expectations and how she is falling short? Are you also using it as an opportunity to ask her if there is anything you can do to help her meet your expectations? Unfortunately, some of my clients call me well down the road in this process, and I learn that they have not had sufficient dialogue with the employee to set expectations and offer assistance. Engaging in progressive discipline and showing that you did all you could to help the employee succeed leading up to termination adds yet another strong layer to guard against an FMLA or ADA claim.

How Do Employers Calculate FMLA Leave Around the Holidays?

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s that time of year — my kids are already making changes to the fourth draft of their Christmas wish list, holiday music has been playing on my local radio station for four weeks now, and I’m just about ready to claim the couch where I will spend most of Thanksgiving week in my PJs watching football and eating leftover turkey!

Another sign of the holiday season? An uptick in client calls asking me to confirm how they calculate FMLA leave during the holiday season.

I’m sure your employees never take FMLA leave during the holidays, right?  But if in the unlikely chance they do [cough, cough], here is a quick compliance reminder about how you account for FMLA leave as we head into Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter break and the New Year:

Calculating FMLA Leave During A Holiday Week

Let’s use Thanksgiving Day as an example.  If the employee gets Thanksgiving Day off as an employer holiday and then takes the entire rest of work week off for an FMLA reason, the employer should count the entire workweek as one full week of FMLA leave used. The same reasoning would apply if the holiday occurred on any other day of the workweek and the employee was otherwise absent for the remaining work days that week.

However, if the employee works any part of the workweek (e.g., he works Monday then is gone the rest of Thanksgiving week on FMLA leave), the employer cannot count the holiday as FMLA leave.  Here, the employer can only count Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.  29 C.F.R. § 825.200(h).

Calculating FMLA Leave During a Plant Shut Down or School Break

What if the employer shuts down operations for the entire week of Thanksgiving or at the end of the year or if a school/university closes down for winter break?  Here, the regulations are clear:

If for some reason the employer’s business activity has temporarily ceased and employees generally are not expected to report for work for one or more weeks (e.g. , a school closing two weeks for the Christmas/New Year holiday or the summer vacation or an employer closing the plant for retooling or repairs), the days the employer’s activities have ceased do not count against the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement. [My emphasis]

In these situations, you cannot count the time against the employee’s FMLA allotment, even if it is obvious the employee would not have been able to perform the duties of the job during this break.

Calculating FMLA Leave Where the Employee Works Part of a Holiday Week

Just to confirm calculating intermittent FMLA leave during a holiday week: Let’s go back to our employee who works Monday of Thanksgiving week and is absent the rest of the week.  There are only four workdays in this particular workweek, and he’s missed Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.  So, he has used 3/4ths of a workweek of FMLA leave.

Contrast this with a non-holiday week: If there was no holiday this particular week, and he worked only Monday, he would have used 4/5ths of workweek of FMLA leave.

Still Can’t Get Enough of this Scintillating Topic?

We talk even more about FMLA calculations during a holiday week on a old podcast “Bah, Humbug! What Do I Do When My Employees Are Home for the Holidays?”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Join Me for a Complimentary Webinar: Complying with the FMLA and ADA When Your Employee is Dealing with a Mental Health Condition

Posted in ADA, Chronic serious health condition, Webinars

When: Wednesday, December 13 (12:00 – 1:15 p.m. central time)

Online registration:  Click Here

Employers are increasingly managing employees who suffer from mental health conditions such as depression, stress, and panic attacks. Studies show that these mental health conditions are leading to increased use of FMLA leave. Administering FMLA leave and ADA accommodations in these situations can be particularly frustrating. Unlike an easy-to-notice need for maternity leave or even a knee replacement, mental health conditions often are silent and manifest themselves on a moment’s notice. As a result, these situations lend themselves to FMLA abuse and increase the risk of FMLA and ADA violations if they are not handled properly.

Please join me on Wednesday, December 13 (12:00 – 1:15 p.m. central time) for “Complying with the FMLA and ADA When Your Employee is Dealing with a Mental Health Condition.”  I will be joined by my friend and fellow FMLA nerd, Matt Morris, Vice President at ComPsych.

In this complimentary webinar, Matt and I will cover a series of difficult FMLA scenarios involving mental health conditions and offer practical strategies to address them, all in an effort to increase your FMLA compliance. We will cover topics such as:

  • At what point has an employee put you on notice of the need for FMLA leave because of a mental health condition?
  • Best practices for employers when an employee fails to return medical certification or turns it in late – and it may be due to their mental health condition
  • What ADA considerations must you keep in mind when considering additional leave or other accommodations for a mental health condition?
  • Does the ADA provide a “Get out of Jail Free” card when an employee’s mental health condition affects work performance?
  • What, if anything, should HR/legal tell the employee’s managers about the employee’s medical condition?

This session will be practical and fun, and back by popular demand, I already have my FMLA-themed song picked out to serenade our guests!

Click here to register for this complimentary webinar. We look forward to your participation. In the meantime, please email me at with any questions that you would like us to address.

This program has been submitted to the HR Certification Institute and SHRM for review and credit. Illinois Continuing Legal Education credit also will be available to attorneys attending the program. For attorneys in states other than Illinois, we will provide proof of attendance, but CLE credit will be governed by your particular state’s rules.

At last! Not One, But TWO Court Decisions That Scale Back an Employee's Right to Take Additional Leave After FMLA is Exhausted

Posted in ADA

Cheers to the Seventh Circuit!

There may not be an issue that strikes more fear in the land of HR than how to deal with an employee who cannot return to work after FMLA leave expires. Is some additional leave beyond 12 weeks required? The answer is almost always ‘yes.’

But how much leave are we obligated to provide?

For ages, I’ve carefully counseled my clients on this issue, recognizing that the courts (and EEOC) have declined to offer any meaningful guidance on how much leave beyond FMLA employers are required to provide. Is it two months? Four? How ’bout six?

There has been no plausible answer. Until now.

In the matter of weeks, one rather influential federal appellate court has issued not one, but two decisions that set a far clearer path for employers to follow when deciding whether and how much additional leave they need to provide as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Let me quickly explain these cases and offer practical steps you should consider when analyzing an employee’s request for leave.

First Came the Severson case

Unless you’ve been securely wedged under a Human Resources rock over the past several weeks, you’ve been bombarded with alerts about the Severson case.

The facts of this case are fairly straightforward. Ray was employed at Heartland Woodcraft, and he suffered from a chronic back condition, which occasionally flared up and limited his ability to walk, bend, lift, sit stand, move and work. One such flare up caused Sugar Ray to take a continuous leave from work.  He asked for and was granted 12 weeks of FMLA leave.

Two weeks before his FMLA leave expired, Ray informed Heartland that his condition had not improved and that he would need surgery.  Heartland notified Ray the day before his surgery that his employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day. However, it encouraged him to reapply for employment when he was able to return. As the story goes, he was ready to return several months later, but instead of reapplying, Ray filed an ADA lawsuit claiming, among other things, that his employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation by granting him an extended leave of absence.

The ADA is Not a Leave of Absence Statute

In analyzing Ray’s ADA claim, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that a “brief” period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be an accommodation in some situations. But, the court also made clear that long-term leaves of absence fit securely within the “domain” of the FMLA, not the ADA. And in doing so, it set out a fairly bright-line rule:

Intermittent time off or a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule. . . But a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. To the contrary, the inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.

Wow.  There is the new rule. A leave of couple of days or weeks may very well be required under the ADA. But a couple months?  No soup for you!  Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft (pdf)

As I shared with Law360 and Bloomberg BNA, it’s as if employers have been given a piece of the Holy Grail! For ages, we’ve searched for a more defined limit on how much leave an employer is obligated to provide under the ADA as a reasonable accommodation. This influential circuit court, at least, has defined this boundary for us.

Then Came the Golden case

Notably, weeks after the Severson case above was decided, the same appellate court doubled down on its position that the ADA was not a leave of absence statute and that leave beyond a couple of weeks simply is not required under the ADA.

Marytza’s case also is simple fact pattern.  She suffered from breast cancer, requiring surgery and an extended leave. As her 12 weeks of FMLA leave was about to expire, she sought an unspecified period of leave, which could have lasted as much as six months.  Her employer, the Indianapolis Housing Agency, declined to grant more than four additional weeks of leave. When Marytza could not return from work after 16 weeks off (12 weeks of FMLA leave and 4 additional weeks), her employer terminated her employment.

Again, the court went right back to its Severson decision issued weeks earlier, finding that

A multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA . . .[and that such a request] removes an employee from the protected class under the ADA.  Golden v. IHA (pdf)

Insights for Employers

These two cases are, in many respects, a game changer.  But what are the practical takeaways?

1. Where Can I Get Aggressive?  For my clients in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana (states covered by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals), I clearly am being more aggressive in the manner in which I handle ADA leave requests. This court’s guidance is golden [no pun intended]: A few days or weeks of leave is likely required under the ADA. But one that is open-ended and spans multiple months simply is not.

2. For clients in other states, I’m using these cases as strong authority, but I’m not slamming the gas pedal.  Let’s remember: Engaging the Employee in the ADA’s Interactive Process is Essential.  Communicate during FMLA leave…after FMLA leave ends…and at all times before and in between!

When a client calls me for guidance on whether they can deny leave or terminate an employee after he or she has asked for the second or third extension of leave (after FMLA has expired), I ask the client for feedback on all the communications they have had with the employee regarding issues such as: a) the employee’s ability to perform his/her job; b) whether the employee likely will be able to return to work (and when); c) whether the requested leave will allow the employee to return to work immediately after the leave ends or very soon thereafter; d) whether there are other accommodations to help the employee return to work in a timely manner; and e) whether the employer has received any feedback from the employee’s physician about the above issues.  The EEOC’s decision to initiate litigation against an employer often hinges on whether the employer is to blame for the breakdown in the interactive process.  To minimize your exposure to liability, keep communicating with your employees!  The interactive process is essential.

3. Approach the Undue Hardship Analysis Carefully.  In an earlier post, I highlighted a presentation I gave some time back with EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum that analyzes the approach employers should take when determining whether a leave request poses an undue hardship.  In that post, I offer a number of criteria you should consider when making this determination.  I encourage you to use this analysis when determining whether a leave of absence is negatively impacting your operations.

4. A Quick Word of Caution about Intermittent Leave.  Notably, in both the Severson and Golden cases, the employee’s return to work date was unclear, which often is the case.  The court in Severson left open the possibility that a shorter leave period — indeed, intermittent leave — might actually be more palatable as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  All the more reason to tread carefully and conduct an individualized assessment of each leave request to determine whether a leave of absence is reasonable and effective in helping the employee return to work.

Credit: PDF of article reproduced with permission from Daily Labor Report (October 19, 2017). Copyright 2017 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) <>

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

When You Don't Train Your Managers on the FMLA, You're Begging for This Kind of Smackdown

Posted in Court Decisions, Notice

When a manager learns that one of his employees is in the hospital for several days, that’s almost always enough information for the employer to have an inkling that the employee may need FMLA leave.

But one employer didn’t think so. And the penalty for its mistake was costly. Let me explain.

The Facts

Grace worked for the Center for Human Development (CHD). On a moment’s notice, she became hospitalized due to a mental health condition. Upon her admission to the hospital, Grace asked her son, Jim, to call CHD to report that she was in the hospital and unable to report to work.

Being the good son he was, Jim called CHD that same day.

And the next day.

And the day after that.

Not only did Jim talk to her mom’s direct supervisor . . . but his boss . . . and the boss’s boss. Each time, he made clear that his mom was ill, in the hospital and could not come to work.  After a few days, Jim shared that his mom could speak, though she was “unintelligible.”

When all was said and done, Jim had called in to report and provide updates on his mom no fewer than four times over the course of one week. At the same time, however, Candy, a supervisor who had taken one of his calls, got angry with Jim, telling him that it was “not acceptable for him to call CHD instead of his mother” and told him “not to call again.” Despite her admonition, Candy asked Jim no questions about Grace’s condition.

The next day, Candy informed CHD’s vice president of Human Resources, Carol, that Grace was hospitalized and unable to work. A few days later, Candy reported to Carol that Grace was a “no call/no show” when she failed to personally notify CHD of her continued absences.  Carol asked Candy no questions, not even something like, “Ummm, Candy, isn’t that the employee you mentioned was in the freaking hospital?” Nope. None of these questions apparently came to mind.

Despite knowing that Grace had been hospitalized, Carol [mind you, she’s the VP of HR, the grand poobah of all things HR] prepared a draft termination letter for signature by one of CHD’s executives. Notably, neither Candy nor Carol told the executive that Grace had been hospitalized, and that she very well still could be there.

As the story goes, when Grace came back a few days later looking for her job and with her doctor’s medical certification in hand, CHD told Grace that her employment had been terminated because she abandoned her job.

The Ruling

Whack!  That’s the sound of a swift smack down the jury gave the employer at trial. No doubt, the jury made quick work of Grace’s FMLA claims, finding that the employer grossly violated the FMLA when it refused to allow Grace’s son to report her absences on her behalf and then terminated Grace immediately after her time in the hospital and without inquiring further. It awarded her nearly $150,000 in back pay and benefits, plus her attorney’s fees. Boadi v. Center for Human Development (pdf)

The loss itself was only part of it. Because the court found that the employer willfully violated the FMLA, it awarded Grace liquidated damages, which doubled Grace’s back pay award. So, Grace gets another $150K.

Insights for Employers

There are plenty of golden nuggets in today’s lesson:

1.  Hey Employers, Your Managers Are Killing You. And there is one, simply reason why this is happening: You are not training your managers on their responsibilities under the FMLA.

I’ve never seen a case like this one call out — indeed, practically beg — employers to train managers on the FMLA. Interestingly, every time the court introduced a new manager in its sad story about Grace, it specifically commented that the manager was “not trained on the FMLA.” The court then used the lack of FMLA training to award double damages to the plaintiff. Why? The court put it simply:

The fact that [the decisionmaker and other managers] had little FMLA training is further evidence of CHD’s lack of good faith.

Heck, even the VP of HR was in clear need of FMLA training, since: 1) she was aware Grace had been in the hospital; and 2) still chose not to inquire further to determine whether Grace’s inpatient stay was the reason for her extended absence.

Please, please, please train your managers on how to effectively and lawfully manage leaves of absence under your personnel policies and the law. Investing a couple hundred bucks now to conduct effective FMLA training will literally save you hundreds of thousands when the real life situation presents itself.

2. Family members can report employee absences in limited situations like this one.  When an employee’s family member reports that your employee is in the hospital and “unintelligible” when communicating, first have some empathy. Then, recognize this situation as an unusual circumstance because the employee’s inpatient stay at the hospital was the reason they couldn’t reach you. This comes right out of the regulations at 29 CFR 825.303(a):

Notice may be given by the employee’s spokesperson (e.g., spouse, adult family member, or other responsible party) if the employee is unable to do so personally.

Of course, the employee is obligated to contact the employer when they are able to do so after the family member has provided notice. Here, Grace was hospitalized for an extended period of time due to a mental health condition. In these situations, it’s far better to exercise patience than to hit the termination button. Clearly, the jury thought so.

Also keep in mind: Where you have any doubt as to whether the FMLA may cover an absence, the regulations require the employer to inquire further to determine whether the FMLA covers the absence. Surely, this was the case here. The employer knew Grace had been hospitalized, so it can’t stick its head in the sand and presume that FMLA didn’t apply or that it had no obligation to ask some questions.  Candy should have asked questions of the son, and Carol should have asked Candy just as many. If Candy didn’t know,  she could have returned to the son and started over again until they were satisfied whether FMLA did or didn’t apply.  [Ahem, it did. ]

3.  Re-consider Your Termination Decision when You Realize You Have Fudged Up. The Court awarded double damages, in part, because the employer failed to reconsider its termination decision when the decisionmaker learned that Grace had been in the hospital, making it unlikely that she could have called in a timely manner from her hospital bed.

Sometimes, we simply have to swallow our pride and realize we made a mistake. Had the employer done so here, it would have drastically reduced its damages.

In fact, it likely would have avoided a lawsuit.

If an Employee Attends a Beyonce Concert While on FMLA Leave, Can She Be Terminated?

Posted in Abuse of FMLA leave

All the single ladies . . . all the single ladies . . . 

Now put your hands up, oh, oh, oh . . . 

Imagine marketing director, Michelle, jamming to this Beyonce song in the middle of AT&T Stadium in Dallas. On that very day, however, she’s supposed to be recuperating at home after suffering a panic attack at work.

Days earlier, Michelle had been given a performance improvement plan (PIP) to address her poor performance. By all accounts, she deserved it, since she struggled with the volume of the work required for her position. Although Michelle agreed that she could not keep up and her performance was deficient, she didn’t think she deserved a PIP.

Upon receiving the PIP, Michelle immediately left work. The next day, she called off, reporting that she was “not well to return back to work” and would be filing for short-term disability benefits. Less than one week later, however, Michelle was spotted at a Beyonce concert – in her employer’s corporate sky box.

I’m not kidding.

When word spread that Michelle was at the concert, Michelle’s boss left her a voicemail, asking to discuss why Michelle thought was appropriate to attend the concert when she was not working. Michelle responded by email that she had not been released by her doctor to meet and that as soon as she was released, she would be willing to meet.

Her boss responded by email, giving her a deadline to respond by later that day. When Michelle failed to respond, she was terminated for three reasons: poor work performance, her attendance at the concert while on leave, and her failure to respond to her boss’ inquiries. As the story goes, Michelle sued her employer, claiming it interfered with her FMLA leave and retaliated against her for taking leave.

‘Cause if you liked work, then you shouldn’t have taken leave
If you liked work, then you shouldn’t have taken leave
Don’t be mad once you get yourself canned
If you liked work, then you shouldn’t have taken leave
Oh, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Insights for Employers

With Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl” playing in the background, I’m sure, the court quickly dismissed Michelle’s FMLA claims, finding that her employer had an honest suspicion that she was abusing leave, and her failure to respond to her boss’ inquiries could only lead the employer to conclude that she was indeed taking leave for reasons having nothing to do with the FMLA. Jackson v. BNSF (pdf)

Michelle’s missteps actually provide some helpful practical pointers for employers:

1. You can require your employees to respond to your reasonable inquiries while they are on leave. 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 she did here) that the employer took action on the heels of an employee’s request for FMLA leave.

Yet, this court decision is an endorsement to 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.

2.  You CAN Terminate Employee Who Fail to Communicate with you while on leave. Similarly, employers feel paralyzed to take any action against an employee while they remain on leave.

Stop feeling powerless!  

What I love about this court decision is that it reaffirms the principle that the employer was well within its right to terminate Michelle’s employment after she failed to communicate with the employer. The court got it right — when an employee fails to communicate with their employer, they suffer the consequences.