You’re Damned if You Fire an Employee Who Takes FMLA Leave, Even if She Does Not Return After 12 Weeks

Posted: May 16, 2016 in Disability Liability, Discrimination, Hiring and Firing, Lawsuits

(I’ve taken about 11 months off from blogging. I’m back, baby.).

Most employers (of over 50 employees) know full well that they have to provide up to 12 weeks of leave under the FMLA and that you generally cannot terminate an employee who is on leave. But don’t assume that means you can terminate an employee who is not medically cleared to come back when her FMLA leave is exhausted. In some cases, doing so will lead to a large verdict in favor of the former employee, as was demonstrated by a recent case from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Esler v. Sylvia-Reardon, 473 Mass. 775 (2016).

The following is from the SJC’s rendition of the possible facts most favorable to Ms. Esler, and I do not represent them as true (the hospital may have presented different alleged facts). Esler worked as a registered nurse in the acute hemodialysis department of MGH. She went out on FMLA leave in December 2008, although there was some hassle from her supervisor about her paperwork. Her doctor suggested that she engage in light exercise and pleasurable activities. So she went to New York City. Her supervisor accused her of “vacationing,” and sounded displeased. When Esler then said that she broke her wrist while ice skating, her supervisor allegedly said “I need to have you back here next week or I can’t hold your job.”

In spite of her supervisor’s alleged statements, to its credit, the hospital extended her FMLA leave past her statutory 12 weeks of leave. However, the hospital said that it could not accommodate her temporary lifting restriction (no lifting more than five pounds in left hand) and need to wear a splint. Esler was expected to return on February 15, 2009. She spoke to her supervisor on January 28th and reported that she was making good progress. Although there was no equipment that required lifting more than five pounds, Esler’s supervisor canceled an occupational health assessment that was part of the return to work process and put Esler on inactive status. The hospital stated that her job could not be accommodated with the restrictions. However, the hospital hired a replacement with less training, who could not have fully performed the job until at least April 6th, a date that was after the date that Esler would have had no medical restrictions.

Esler sued for retaliation, which is prohibited under the FMLA (and most other employment statutes). A jury returned a verdict in her favor of back wages consisting of $567,500 and front pay of $672,686. The judge overturned the front pay award, and this decision was upheld on appeal. The trial judge also overturned the backpay award, but this was reinstated on appeal (subject to further proceedings at the trial court). Because the case was filed in 2010, if the backpay award sticks, interest will add a staggering 75% and counting (12% per annum in Massachusetts), which I calculate to be $425,625. Liquidated damages equal to the back pay could also be awarded. With an award of attorneys’ fees and costs surely on the horizon, the total verdict could approach or exceed two million dollars, even with the front pay being overturned. Not to mention the Defendants’ own legal fees, which are surely sizable.

Takeaways

There are a few lessons for employers. First, if an employee takes FMLA leave, don’t assume that her FMLA rights end after 12 weeks. In fact, the FMLA provides “proscriptive provisions” to protect employees from retaliation after exercising substantive rights.

Second, an employer should take a realistic look at accommodations an employee needs. Although it appears that Esler did not file a disability discrimination claim, she could have. Employers should always consider whether continued leave or other accommodations are reasonable for an employee who has been out on FMLA leave. You should also be careful to not use the FMLA leave in any future employment decision, as that could be deemed retaliation.

Third, train your supervisors to not make comments that are hostile to protected FMLA leave.

Fourth, for God’s sake call your employment lawyer before firing an employee who went out on FMLA leave! A short phone call might save you from a $2 million mistake. If the facts were as Esler alleged, the decision to not accommodate her for a short time was foolhardy and reckless.

As always, the above is not legal advice, just general information.

By Adam P. Whitney, Esq. 617.338.7000

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Comments
  1. Mark Paquin says:

    Good to have you back Adam!

    Mark

    >

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