Human Resources News & Insights

How to mishandle FMLA leave

An employee takes leave to enter rehab for alcoholism. Over nearly three months the employee relapses several times and misses work prior to – and during – several stints in rehab. Are all of his absences FMLA-protected?

FMLA regulations clearly state: “FMLA leave may only be taken for treatment for substance abuse by a health care provider or by a provider of health care services on referral by a health care provider.”

Based on the regs, the answer to the question above would have to be “no”, right? Not necessarily, according to a federal court in Texas.

Man fired for not being in treatment during leave

Perry Picarazzi took FMLA leave beginning on April 1, 2008 because he “needed to get some help” for his alcohol problems. He was admitted to rehab the next day.

Meanwhile, Picarazzi’s employer, John Crane, Inc. (JCI), said he was entitled to 12 weeks of leave, which expired on June 23. All Picarazzi had to do was check in with the company every 30 days.

On April 24, the rehab facility released him and said he could return to work.

A week later, on April 30, Picarazzi returned to the rehab facility, where he stayed until May 8. He was then back in the facility from June 9-15.

In between his stints in rehab, Picarazzi missed several days of work as a result of his alcoholism. For those absences, he accrued absentee points, which eventually lead to his termination.

JCI considered the time Picarazzi was in rehab as FMLA leave, but not the time he was absent but not in treatment.

Court: Company made 2 mistakes

As the case wound through the court system, a federal court disagreed with JCI’s actions for two reasons:

  • The court said an employee doesn’t need to be enrolled in rehab every single day that he/she is on leave in order for it to qualify under the FMLA, and
  • JCI may have confused Picarazzi into thinking his was allowed to take the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave, regardless of the severity of his need to take it, because the company told him his leave expired on June 23.

Result: The court said the case should go before a jury, which will decide whether JCI violated the FMLA. So chances are JCI is in for a costly settlement or, at the very least, an expensive legal battle.

Cite: Picarazzi v. John Crane, Inc.

Do you think the court made the right decision? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

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