Do FMLA regulations cover a sick car?

by on February 16, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

When does FMLA leave begin?

HR Manager Steve Seeger was waiting by the front door when Ramona Townley entered the building at 1 p.m. “Ramona, please come see me right away,” he said.

When they were seated in his office, Steve handed Ramona a termination letter. As she read it, her eyes widened. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “You’re firing me right after I return from an appointment with my doctor, who tells me I should take four days off to let my back heal?”

“The letter doesn’t say we’re firing you because you have a bad back or because you went to the doctor,” Steve retorted. “We’re firing you because you took this morning off before you went to the doctor, and you had no leave left. Plus, you had agreed with your supervisor that you would come in from 8 to 10 prior to the appointment. This is yet another unexcused absence, and you’ve accumulated enough penalty points to be fired under our policy.”

Are mechanical problems covered in FMLA regulations?

“Oh, come on,” she said. “My car wouldn’t start this morning and I had to get my brother-in-law to fix it. By the time he finished, it was time for my appointment. And what’s the big deal with a couple of hours, anyway?”

“FMLA leave isn’t for sick cars,” Steve said firmly. “And frankly, you’ve had a variety of excuses for your repeated absences and they won’t wash any more.”

“You’re twisting things,” Ramona said indignantly. “Here I sit with a valid doctor’s excuse for a serious back condition, and you’re firing me because you don’t want to give me the time off I’m legally entitled to.”

“I think a judge will see through your trickery,” she said.

Steve held his ground and fired Ramona, and she sued for violation of FMLA regulations

Did she win?


Ramona didn’t win, even though she was fired at a time when she had qualified for FMLA leave.

A federal appeals court said the point was that she had no right to leave for the two hours in question under FMLA regulations.

The fact that she had a serious medical condition wasn’t established until she saw her doctor at 10:30 a.m. Therefore, her entitlement to FMLA leave started at the time of the appointment and ran through whatever period she had to take off from work due to her back condition.

She was not entitled to leave under FMLA regulations between 8 a.m., when she was supposed to have been at work, and 10 a.m., the time at which her supervisor had authorized her to leave for the appointment.

Getting rid of trouble

Depending on the situation, you may or may not want to be as aggressive as this employer was. But you’re not breaking the law if you discipline someone on FMLA leave – as long as you can show the discipline wasn’t related to the leave.

Cite: Phillips v. Dep’t. of AR Heritage, No. 08-1082, 8th Cir., 11/18/2008. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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