A recent FMLA lawsuit provides a valuable lesson in what NOT to do when employees request medical leave.
Heather Curry was a manager of a Goodwill Center in Campbellsville, KY. On July 22, 2009, Curry informed her supervisor that she’d need to take medical leave to have surgery. She indicated her leave would start near the beginning of September, depending on when her surgery was scheduled.
A few days later, her supervisor informed Curry that she wasn’t happy Curry would be taking time off, because that meant she would have to cover Curry’s post at the Campbellsville Goodwill.
On July 31, 2009, Curry informed Goodwill’s HR department of her need to take FMLA leave. The department then sent her FMLA paperwork and requested that she return her certification forms by Aug. 15, 2009.
The finalized certification forms were not submitted until Aug. 19 (more on that later).
Terminated for timekeeping, performance issues
Just prior to submitting her paperwork, on Aug. 17, Curry was informed by Goodwill that she’d been terminated for falsifying timekeeping records and other performance issues.
Prior to the termination notice, Curry had never received any disciplinary reports or reprimands from the company. In fact, her store had received a number of company awards and she’d been given a raise due to a positive performance review she’d received in the past year.
On Aug. 27, Curry received a notice that her FMLA request had been denied because “Goodwill has no obligation to provide a leave of absence to a former employee.”
As a result, Curry sued Goodwill claiming it had interfered with her right to take FMLA leave and retaliated against her for requesting medical leave.
Goodwill requested summary judgment in an attempt to get the cause thrown out before it made it to trial.
The request was shot down by the court because there appeared to be a legitimate reason to suspect that Goodwill did in fact terminate Curry because she requested FMLA leave.
So now the case will proceed.
Two areas where Goodwill dropped the ball:
- Curry’s supervisor was on record as having said she wasn’t happy that Curry had requested medical leave, and
- Goodwill had no paperwork to back up its claims that Curry was terminated for timekeeping violations or performance issues.
It’s important to note that many at-will employers feel as though they do not need to document performance issues to support a termination — and in some cases that’s true.
But supporting documentation will inevitably be needed in cases where an employee is terminated after having just requested FMLA leave. And seeing as how most FMLA requests are unforeseeable, it’s crucial to always document performance problems and violations of company policy.
Policy can’t be more stringent than FMLA
In issuing its ruling that Curry’s case could proceed, the court provided additional guidance on complying with the FMLA that employers should take note of.
In the case, the issue of whether or not Curry’s FMLA certification paperwork was late was put under the microscope.
As you know, the FMLA says employees can have up to 15 days to return their certification unless it is “not practicable” under an employee’s specific circumstances to do so. And if an employee fails to return their certification “in a timely manner,” their employer may deny FMLA leave until the required certification is provided.
That, according to the court, meant Curry’s FMLA leave couldn’t have been denied if she missed her Aug. 15 paperwork deadline, just delayed — assuming she were still an employee.
In addition, the court said as long as Curry provided her completed certification paperwork prior to the date her leave was scheduled to begin, her leave request couldn’t be denied for not handing in her paperwork in a timely manner.
Bottom line: If Goodwill had denied her leave request for failing to hand in her paperwork in a timely manner, that would mean the company’s procedural requirements would’ve been more stringent than the FMLA’s — which is not allowed.
Cite: Curry v. Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, Inc.
This post previously appeared on our sister website, HRBenefitsAlert.com.