Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Repeated calls from supervisor to employee on medical leave violates FMLA

What is the line between checking on a sick employee and harassing a sick employee to return to work early? Terwilliger v. Howard Mem. Hosp. (W.D. Ark. 1/27/2011) draws that line in a case that concluded that the employee was entitled to present her FMLA interference claim to a jury.

Regina Terwilliger worked as a housekeeper for Howard Memorial Hospital. On November 14, 2008, Terwilliger completed and submitted an FMLA request for leave for necessary back surgery. After the hospital approved her request, Terwilliger took her leave, underwent surgery, and returned to work after release by her doctor. During her recovery, and before her return to work, Terwilliger claimed that her supervisor, Kim Howard, contacted her weekly to inquire when she was going to return to work. During one phone call, Terwilliger claimed that she asked Howard if her job was in jeopardy, to which Howard replied that she should return to work as soon as possible. According to Terwilliger, she felt pressured by Howard’s calls to return to work early.

Terwilliger claimed that the hospital interfered with her statutory right to 12 weeks of FMLA leave by pressuring her to return to work after only 11 weeks. The district court agreed that a jury should decide that claim.

Interference includes discouraging an employee from using FMLA leave, … as well as manipulation by a covered employer to avoid responsibilities under FMLA…. To prove interference, an employee must show that the employer denied his or her benefits to which he or she was entitled under the FMLA….

Defendants argue that, because Plaintiff returned to work after her doctor had released her to return to work without any restrictions, she cannot claim that she was denied a benefit that she was entitled to under the FMLA. Defendants, however, are overlooking the fact that an interference claim includes the “chill theory.” … Interference occurs when an employer’s action deters an employee’s exercise of FMLA rights…. Here, Plaintiff had a right not to be discouraged from taking FMLA leave…. [T]he Court finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that Defendants interfered with Plaintiff’s exercise of her FMLA rights by discouraging or chilling her exercise of those rights.

It should go without saying that employers should not harass employees into returning early from FMLA leaves. But, this case is a good excuse to remind businesses that the FMLA has specific procedures in place to check on employees during FMLA leaves.

  • If the employee’s medical certification indicates that the minimum duration of the serious health condition is more than 30 days, an employer must wait until that minimum duration expires before requesting a recertification.

  • In all cases, an employer may request a recertification of a medical condition once every 6 months, even if the original certification is for a longer period of time.

  • Otherwise, an employer may request recertification no more often than every 30 days, and only in connection with an absence by the employee, unless the employee requests a leave extension, the circumstances described by the previous certification have changed significantly, or the employer receives information that casts doubt upon the employee’s stated reason for the absence or the continuing validity of the certification.

In all cases, employers should avoid personal contact to check on the return-to-work status of an employee on an FMLA leave, and follow these timelines if a recertification of a serious health condition is necessary.

[Hat tip: FMLA Blog and FMLA Insights]

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