Let's say you have an employee who suffers from chronic migraine headaches. She applies and is approved for intermittent FMLA leave on September 24. Your company uses the calendar year to calculate FMLA eligibility benefits. During her period of intermittent leave, her condition worsens and she takes an extended period off, which lasts into the beginning of the next calendar year. Because you assume that FMLA eligibility cannot carry over from one year to the next, you ask the employee to recertify her need for FMLA leave as of January 1. When she fails to do so, you begin counting her absences as unexcused, and ultimately terminate her for excessive absences.
When the inevitable lawsuit is filed, are you correct that FMLA eligibility expires at the end of the FMLA year? Can you require the employee to recertify the need for the leave at the beginning of the next FMLA year, and legally deny further leave if she fails to do so? According to the 6th Circuit in Davis v. Michigan Bell Tel. Co. (9/29/08), the answer is yes:
[A] series of absences, separated by days during which the employee is at work, but all of which are taken for the same medical reason, subject to the same notice, and taken during the same twelve-month period, comprises one period of intermittent leave. That leave, however, can only extend to the end of the twelve-month FMLA period in which it began. Once a new twelve-month FMLA period begins, any additional absences caused by that same chronic condition would constitute a new period of intermittent FMLA leave. Otherwise, there would be no point at which the initial period of intermittent FMLA leave ended and a new period commenced. Under that scenario, employees would never have to reestablish their eligibility for FMLA leave and would therefore be perpetually entitled to twelve weeks of FMLA leave per year based on a single eligibility determination. (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Thus, absences caused by the same chronic condition, but occurring in different twelve-month FMLA periods, constitute different periods of FMLA leave. If a company has an employee with a chronic condition that spans two years, it can legally re-determine the employee's FMLA eligibility at the beginning of each leave year, according to the Davis opinion.
This opinion has significant implications on how an employer chooses to calculate the FMLA leave year, an issue we'll look at tomorrow.