Employees are eligible for FMLA if they have a serious health condition which results in a “period of incapacity of more than three, consecutive full calendar days.” So why did a court recently rule that an employee was protected under FMLA even though she only missed two days of work?
Two competing medical issues
Angela Fries, an administrative assistant for a telemarketing company, was diagnosed with a number of medical conditions, including herpes and a bladder disease. Both conditions caused her great pain and discomfort.
On one particular Friday, Fries didn’t come to work, claiming that she was using the bathroom frequently and was in pain. Her issues got worse the next day, Saturday.
On Sunday, she went to the emergency room, where she had a catheter placed. A doctor found that her bladder condition had caused her pain on Friday and Saturday, and that her herpes was responsible for issues on Sunday and the following day, Monday. The doctor gave her a note saying she could return to work on Tuesday.
She texted her manager saying that she had a doctor’s note to miss work the following day, Monday. But her supervisor responded by saying she’d be fired if she didn’t come in.
Fries missed work on Monday, but she returned to the office the next day, Tuesday. The following day, Fries was called into a meeting with her supervisor and the company owner, and was told she was being suspended.
Fries responded by threatening to sue, and was subsequently fired. Her termination letter said that the company had planned on suspending her until she mentioned a lawsuit, at which point it was decided she should be fired.
Her issues were “temporally linked”
Fries filed suit, claiming FMLA interference and retaliation.
In court, the company argued that Fries didn’t qualify for leave because she didn’t have a “serious health condition” that lasted more than three days — her bladder issues caused her medical issues on Friday and Saturday, while her herpes caused her problems on Sunday and Monday.
The court acknowledged that each of Fries’ medical conditions, when taken alone, did not incapacitate her for more than three days.
But it still ruled in her favor. Other courts have found that two conditions, when taken together, can be “temporally linked” and “affect the same organ system.” Therefore, Fries’ problems met the definition of “serious medical condition.”
Looking at the overall effects of Fries’ medical issues — which is what firms should do when determining “serious health conditions” — the court said she was clearly covered.
As for her retaliation claim, the court ruled in Fries’ favor as well.
The company noted in its termination letter that Fries was going to be suspended until she threatened to sue. Only then was she fired.
That, plus testimony from the company owner that her threat was a “little bit” of the reason for her termination, was enough to sway the court in Fries’ favor.
Two lessons from this bizarre case:
- Don’t assume that absences of three days or less are not covered under FMLA. Despite what the regs say, staffers can still be protected under the law even if they’re not out for more than three days.
So how can HR stay safe? If a staffer is suffering from multiple medical issues, try to determine if the conditions could be linked or if they’re affecting the same “organ system.” The focus should be on collective, negative effects of the medical issues.
If it’s a possibility they’re linked, and all other requirements under FMLA are met, it might be safer to grant leave, or seek counsel for advice.
- Don’t let someone go because they’ve threatened to sue. This one almost goes without saying, but this company doubled its legal issues by firing Fries for threatening to sue — and mentioning it as part of the reason in her termination letter. Unless you have a non-discriminatory reason for firing someone, don’t do it — no matter what threats of legal action an employee might make.
Cite: Fries v. TRI Marketing Corportation. To read the full decision, go here.