A staffer runs out of FMLA leave but hands in a doctor’s note saying she’ll be out indefinitely with a back injury. Her company fires her, and she sues, claiming FMLA interference and refusal to accommodate a disability. Who wins? Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.
“Lynn, remind me why we let go of Julia Stanley,” VP Carl Nicholas asked HR Manager Lynn Rondo. “Because now she’s suing us.”
“That’s outrageous,” Lynn said. She motioned for Carl to close her office door. “After she used up her twelve weeks of FMLA leave, she gave us a doctor’s note saying she’d be out of work until further notice because of her severe back pain.”
“We couldn’t just keep her position open forever,” Lynn said. “We needed a permanent replacement.”
Did she cause undue hardship?
“I understand,” replied Carl, “but she’s claiming that we terminated her because of her medical disability, and retaliated against her for requesting and taking medical leave.”
“Her termination had nothing to do with her disability,” replied Lynn. “We fired her because it was too difficult to accommodate her extended leave.”
“We tried as best as we could, but the department was strained from short staffing – two other employees had to take on Julia’s work in her absence.”
“And hiring a temporary assistant was out of the question because of the confidentiality involved in her position.”
“Well, that all makes sense to me, but I just hope the court sees it that way, too,” said Carl.
Did the company win?
Yes, Lynn’s company won.
The judge said Julia’s request was unreasonable for a couple of reasons.
First, she didn’t provide a date marking when she’d be able to return to work.
Second and more importantly, the company identified specific reasons for how Julia’s absence created an “undue hardship” on business and would continue to do so moving forward.
The judge agreed with the company in its assertion that accommodating Julia was too much of a personnel and financial hardship in a department that was already overburdened with responsibilities.
Analysis: Not everyone who takes leave is covered
This is just one more example of how FMLA and ADA meet, and good HR pros know to check to see if they need to accommodate a worker under the ADA who runs out of FMLA. But this ruling also makes it clear that it’s not always necessary for firms to bend over backwards to accommodate every staffer who requests it.
In order to make sure you aren’t caught in a trap, be prepared to explain how an an employee’s absence creates an unnecessary burden on business. This can be through losses in productivity, lost sales, deferred projects, etc.
Cite: Henry v. United Bank, U.S. Circuit Crt. 1, Nos. 11-1666, 7/13/12. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.