It’s not uncommon for employers to have some type of company-wide policy requiring all employees on leave to get a doctor certification that they’re cleared to come back to work. But as a recent lawsuit shows, if that policy is fairly rigid, it can put your company in legal danger. It can also lead to a ton of additional administrative work for HR pros.
The case we’re referring to is Donlin v. Petco Animal Supplies.
Background: Matthew Donlin was a general manager for Petco who took FMLA leave in February 2016 for a medical condition that led to occasional flare-ups. By May of 2016, Donlin’s doctor cleared him to return to work with certain limitations.
Despite the clearance, Petco had a companywide policy that required employees to be 100% healed (i.e., able to return with the “certain limitations) and refused to let him back to work unless he could abide by that policy.
Eventually, Donlin was fired after he failed to complete a reasonable accommodation package that was a condition of his returning to work for Petco. Following his termination, Donlin sued, claiming his termination violated both the ADA and the FMLA.
A deluge of information
The claims against the company’s policy are nothing groundbreaking, but here’s where the case gets interesting. During the litigation, Donlin issued requests for a variety of info from the company that included:
- contact info for all persons involuntarily terminated from Petco’s employment due to a failure to return to work after FMLA leave, including all termination documents for workers who failed to request an accommodation or to certify 100% recovery
- contact info for all persons after January 1, 2014, who complained that Petco interfered with or denied rights under the FMLA or ADA, including documents regarding any claim and Petco’s investigation of it, and
- info and documents concerning FMLA and ADA complaints made to a governmental agency or in court about Petco.
Naturally, Petco objected to the tremendous administrative burden granting these requests require. It argued the info Donlin and his attorneys were requesting was not relevant or not reasonably calculated to lead to discoverable evidence. Petco also claimed the requests were overly broad and unduly burdensome (i.e., not reasonably limited to relevant circumstances of the employee’s employment, geography or decision-maker).
But the court disagreed. The info, which provided evidence of how Petco treated other workers, was relevant because it could help determine the company’s intent to discriminate or uncover a company-wide pattern of retaliation, the court said. If the latter could be proven, it could leave the company open to a class-action lawsuit against the 100% healed policy.
In the end, the court ruled that because Petco’s 100%-healed policy was enforced on a company-wide basis, the information requests were necessary for it to determine how many times the company terminated workers for not providing the certification or an accommodation request package — something that can be very problematic for the company in the end.
In granting Donlin’s info request, the court also ordered Petco to pay all of the attorney’s fees and costs associated with filing it.
Legal risk, administrative burdens
This ruling not only shows how dangerous inflexible, company-wide 100%-healed policies can be for employers, it also highlights an extremely burdensome administrative task (providing information on all similar requests the company has undertaken) that many employers may not have been aware of.
If your company currently has a 100%-healed policy in place, you may want to consider revising it to allow some wiggle room for disabled employees and workers who are seeking reinstatement after FMLA leave with some medical restrictions. Otherwise, you could be leaving yourself wide open to a situation just like the one Petco is in.