Posts Tagged ‘FMLA’

The U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Pennsylvania recently held that a first-grade teacher sufficiently stated a claim against Red Lion Area School District for violating her right Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) rights.

The case involves a teacher at Clearview Elementary School who suffers from Chron’s disease, a condition that sometimes caused her to arrive late to work.  In 2011, the teacher requested an accommodation for her condition and the HR director asked the teacher to have her physician fill out a FMLA form to determine her eligibility.  The teacher completed the forms and returned them to the HR director but he allegedly failed to further address her FMLA eligibility.  Thereafter, the teacher received her first unsatisfactory performance review in her five year tenure with the school and she was suspended.

Several months later, the teacher again requested an accommodation and a determination of her FMLA eligibility.  The school district decided to accommodate the teacher by permitting her to inform the school of required morning accommodations for flare-ups associated with her medical condition.  Nonetheless, despite granting the teacher this accommodation, the School District criticized her for using the accommodation and disciplined her for late arrivals, tardiness, and absences.  In response, the teacher once again submitted FMLA forms, but was never informed of her rights regarding FMLA leave.

Next, according to the teacher, the school district began to scrutinize her classroom protocols and teaching methods.  In early 2012, after the teacher’s attorney demanded that the school district grant the teacher’s leave request, intermittent FMLA leave was provided.  A month later, the teacher experienced another flare-up in her condition.  When she arrived to school late, she was allegedly embarrassed by the school principal for using the morning accommodation and intermittent FMLA leave and was suspended for two days without pay.  Moreover, the teacher alleges that the school principal and HR director told other employees about her Crohn’s disease and absences.

The teacher filed suit against the school district, the HR director and the principal alleging, among other things, interference with her FMLA rights and retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights.  The HR director and principal moved to dismiss based on qualified immunity from FMLA liability, but the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected the principal’s and HR director’s arguments regarding qualified immunity on the basis that government officials are protected from liability only if their conduct does not violate clearly established rights.  Here, the officials conceded that the conduct alleged could show a violation of the FMLA.

 

The court agreed that the teacher sufficiently stated a claim for interference under the FMLA because the officials failed to give her proper notice of her eligibility for leave, placed unreasonable restrictions on her use of leave, discouraged her from using leave by disciplining her for absences, disclosed to co-workers the occasions where she used leave, and did not communicate properly the status of her FMLA requests.  Moreover, the court noted that the teacher had alleged that she was subjected to discipline in close temporal proximity to her request for FMLA leave.

The court went on to say that “it would be a misuse of qualified immunity to apply the doctrine [of qualified immunity] to insulate from suit public employees who, as is the case here, do not dispute that their acts (if proven) would violate a clearly established right but instead only take exception to liability on the basis that responsibility for their conduct should be borne by their own employer alone.”

According to the court, because the teacher’s FMLA rights were clearly established, the officials should have known that the law required them to communicate with her about her rights, and to grant her FMLA leave if medically necessary.

To avoid adverse results such as this, employers should adequately train their officials regarding FMLA obligations.  The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are available to provide such training.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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In the case of Jaszcyszyn v. Advantage Health Physician Network, the Sixth Circuit recently sided with an employer that terminated an employee after it caught her partying at a Polish heritage festival while she was supposedly too disabled to work.  It’s a case of Facebook strikes again.  The termination was based upon the employer’s belief that the employee was engaging in FMLA fraud.

The whole ordeal came to the employer’s attention after the partying employee was spotted by her Facebook friend/coworker partying it up while her colleagues were at the office covering for her.  Naturally, the coworker took the pictures to a supervisor.

The employer gave the employee an opportunity  to explain the discrepancy between her claim of complete incapacitation and her partying behavior in the photos.  Guess what?  The employee didn’t really have a response, was silent, or claimed that she was in pain at the festival and just not showing it.  When the employee repeatedly failed to respond or to provide a legitimate justification for her action, the employer terminated her.  Following the employee’s termination, someone in HR completed a report that selected “absenteeism/lateness” from a list of six possible reasons for discharge.

The employee filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan alleging that she was fired in violation of the FMLA.  Her claims included a count for interference with her right to take leave and a count for retaliation for taking leave.  The trial court dismissed the employees’ claim before it went to trial and the employee appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

On appeal, the court found that the employer had not interfered with the employee’s right to take FMLA leave as it had granted her requests for FMLA leave in full.  As for the employee’s retaliation claim, the court found that the employee offered little or no evidence linking her termination to activity protected by the FMLA.  Moreover, even though the person in HR had checked “absenteeism” on the form rather than “fraud” the court was not persuaded that the employee’s mere use of leave was the reason for her termination.  The court specifically said that selecting absenteeism on a standardized form did not establish that the employer’s explanation of the firing was a pretext for unlawful retaliation.  Rather, the court found that the employee never refuted the employer’s honest belief that the employee’s partying at the Polish heritage festival was inconsistent with her claims of disability.  Therefore, the employee could not show that the employers legitimate reasons for terminating the employee, i.e., her fraudulent behavior, was a pretext.

Employer Tip:  Employers should be aware of the sensitive issues that surround terminating employees while they are on FMLA leave.  While this case ended well for the employer, the employee might have had less fodder for her lawsuit if the HR person had not checked “absenteeism”, but had rather written “fraud” on the form.  It is recommended that you consult with an attorney before making such decisions.  The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are here to advise employers on all Employment and Labor Law matters.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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