December 8, 2011

Botched FMLA leave costs MN employer $12K

Posted in Disability, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Leaves of Absence tagged , , , , , , , at 10:12 am by Tom Jacobson

When Jim failed to return to work at Happy Trails Home* after his FMLA leave expired, Happy Trails fired him. Although this may seem like the proper course of action, this southern Minnesota health care facility ended up paying Jim $12,000.00 to settle his claims arising from Happy Trails’ botched handling of his leave.

The trouble began when Jim needed time off to recover from surgery. Happy Trails granted his request for FMLA leave, but it used a confusing FMLA designation form. The form said that eligible employees could “take up to 12 or 26 weeks of job-protected leave…”. This led Jim to believe that he had up to 26 weeks of leave. In addition, Happy Trails never clarified for Jim the number of hours, days, or weeks that would be counted against his FMLA leave entitlement.

The problems continued during Jim’s leave. He was ready, willing and able to return to work within about a month after his leave started. His doctor cleared him for light duty work, and he gave those clearances to Happy Trails. Rather than allowing Jim to return to work in a light duty capacity (as it had done for other employees), or working with him to figure out how much longer his FMLA leave would last, Happy Trails simply told him that he could not return to work until the light duty restrictions were lifted. Thus, Jim remained off work until his light duty restrictions were lifted slightly more than 12 weeks after his FMLA leave started.  Even though his restrictions were lifted, Happy Trails refused to bring him back to work.

Jim also claimed that Happy Trails’ failure to allow him to return to work in a light duty capacity violated the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. Assuming that his shoulder problems were a “disability” under the ADAAA, Jim argued that Happy Trails failed to engaged in an interactive process with him to determine a reasonable accommodation such as job restructuring, a modified work schedule, an ADAAA-based leave of absence, etc.

To make matters worse, Happy Trails changed its story after Jim challenged the company’s decision. First, Happy Trails said they were simply replacing him with someone else who had “seniority.” Then, the company suggested that his termination was related to an old scheduling issue. Eventually, Happy Trails said they let him go because he did not return to work before his leave had expired.

Fortunately for Happy Trails, Jim was able to find a new job within a few months after being discharged; this limited the company’s liability for Jim’s lost wages. Nevertheless, rather than face a lawsuit, Happy Trails agreed to pay Jim $12,000.00 to settle his claims.

Happy Trails learned the hard lesson that managing FMLA leaves is challenging. Federal laws impose a myriad of requirements that apply from start to finish, and failing to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” is costly.  Happy Trails also learned how wavering explanations will damage credibility.

*Names have been changed due to confidentiality.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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1 Comment »

  1. Great wordpress blog here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! take care


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