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Mental Health and FMLA law

by on January 13, 2010 · 3 Comments POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Mental health is a controversial issue in FMLA law. When are mental issues an excuse for poor performance or leave violations?

Court: ‘My depression made me do it’ is no excuse for poor performance

Illness-inspired performance problems not protected by FMLA law

An employee who was already on notice for her poor performance took FMLA leave for treatment of her clinical depression.

When she was on FMLA leave, her employer discovered many more mistakes she’d made and covered up – mistakes that hurt the company’s bottom line.

Did the company violate FMLA law?

When she returned from medical leave she was confronted with her errors. And when she couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse, she was fired.

The employee sued, claiming that her employer had interfered with her rights under FMLA law. She maintained that the mistakes she’d made were on account of the depression she was suffering.

In court the employer showed a number of written warnings that the employee’s supervisor had sent to her before her FMLA leave.

These warnings stated clearly that the woman’s job was in jeopardy (long before her leave) because of her poor performance, not her mental condition.

The employee’s claim that her depression led to her poor performance didn’t sway the court.

In issuing his ruling, the judge stated, “While it may be true that the problems were a result of her illness, FMLA law does not protect an employee from performance problems caused by the condition for which FMLA leave is taken, nor does it require that an employee be given the opportunity to show improved job performance when not ill.”

Cite: McBride v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., U.S. District Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, No. 01-5039, 2/21/02.

“Depression again” absences protected by FMLA law

Workers are required to do very little to assert their right under FMLA laws.

After a bank employee was diagnosed with depression she took a six-week FMLA leave of absence.

She returned to work, but over the next few years she had numerous unexcused absences (unrelated to her depression). Finally, her boss said she’d be fired for one more unexcused absence. One day, she called in and claimed she had “depression again.” She was fired. But a court said her “depression again” statement was enough to invoke her rights under FMLA law.

Source: Spangler v. Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, U.S. District Court of Appeals, No. 01-2476, 2002.

Boss’s lax oversight leads to messy FMLA law case

Supervisor Sue Ellis was at her desk reviewing paperwork when she heard a commotion outside her office.

She shrugged off the noise. It persisted, so she poked her head out her office door. Her heart sank.

Jessica Swift was back.

Jessica was out on FMLA leave to get treatment for manic depression. During Jessica’s leave, Sue had uncovered serious errors in Jessica’s work, mistakes that would cost the company $40,000.

And now this disruption. Jessica was dressed in pajamas. She was laughing – hysterical, frightening laughter. Sue went over and asked Jessica to step into her office.

Disruptive for months

“Jessica, you’ve been disruptive the past few months,” said Sue. “Your extreme mood swings are disturbing to your co-workers.”

“I’m feeling better today,” said Jessica, twirling her hair.

“No, you’re manic today,” said Sue. “Last week I asked you to take leave and get treatment. You agreed. And here you are back in the office causing a disruption.”

“I’m just visiting on my way to the store,” said Jessica. “Everyone’s glad to see me!”

“They’re not,” said Sue.

“I get lonely,” said Jessica. “I don’t like to sit home alone. Shouldn’t I be happy?”

“That’s not the point,” said Sue. “You need professional treatment. And now we’ve got bigger fish to fry. You didn’t answer your mail for a few months. It turns out we owe $40,000 to a customer.”

“Sorry,” said Jessica, suddenly sullen.

“I’d like you to resign,” said Sue. “This is all too much.”

Jessica resigned, but sued the company for interfering with her rights under FMLA law and failing to reinstate her after FMLA leave.

Did the company win?

FMLA law benefits supervisor

The company won, but it was close. After a sympathetic jury ruled for Jessica, post-trial motions gave the company a victory. The court overruled the jury’s decision.

There’s a well-accepted FMLA law regarding leave: If employees do something that would get them fired, it doesn’t matter if the employees are on leave or not.

A company could fire Jessica for not servicing customer accounts whenever the problems came to light, whether Jessica was on leave at the time or not.

This FMLA law suit may have been avoided if the supervisor had done two things:

  1. Taken a closer interest in the employee’s work. Jessica had been acting erratically for months, but Sue didn’t do an in depth review of Jessica’s performance until Jessica was on leave.
  2. Set better ground rules for leave. Workers who are out on leave for mental health treatment should know they’re not to come into work until leave is over.

Cite: Throneberry v. McGehee-Desha County Hospital, No. 03-3822, 8th Cir.

  • Wilma

    Is severe depression and anxeity a mental reason for an fmla leave?

  • Wilma

    Is severe depression and anxeity an fmla quailification?

  • Wilma

    Is severe depression and anxeity a mental reason for an fmla leave?

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