When is a condition “serious” under FMLA regulations?

by on January 14, 2010 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

And does FMLA cover incarcerated employees?

Court: Plaintiff’s illness wasn’t grave enough under FMLA regulations

Denied FMLA leave, although she needed medical treatment

An employee was denied FMLA leave because her health condition wasn’t serious enough to prevent her from performing her job.

An administrative assistant at a large chemical company was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints.

Her doctor proposed a course of treatment and released her for work without any restrictions. Nonetheless, she missed about 152 hours of work over a six-week period. She was warned about her absences. When she failed to heed the warning, she was fired.

The employee sued, claiming her discharge violated FMLA regulations by not recognizing her right to periods of leave. She argued that her condition required medical treatment, and therefore made her eligible for leave.

But her doctor and expert witnesses showed that she could have gotten the treatment without missing work. Her condition wasn’t serious enough to warrant FMLA leave, and the company wasn’t obligated to provide medical leave simply because she asked.

Cite: Mincey v. The Dow Chemical Company, U.S District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, No. 98-812, 3/15/02.

FMLA regulations say stress qualifies

But he didn’t have a serious health problem, claimed his employer

An employee experiences chest pains. They quickly subside, but his doctor tells him not to report back to work until he takes a stress test. The employee calls for an appointment, but he must wait ten days for the test.

Do those ten days count as a medical leave under FMLA regulations?

He had a clean bill of health

A Michigan appeals court said “yes” – and the ruling should send a clear signal to employers struggling to understand some of FMLA’s technicalities.

The above scenario happened to a truck driver. When he returned to work after the stress test – with a clean bill of health – he learned that he’d been discharged for unauthorized absences.

Following doctor’s orders

The driver sued, claiming his employer had violated his FMLA rights. The company argued that the driver didn’t have a serious health problem, so he hadn’t been entitled to family medical leave.

But a district court and an appeals court agreed that the driver was entitled to FMLA leave because he was undergoing “continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.” The courts said the employee had met his obligation by scheduling the stress test and by informing his employer that he’d be out.

Cite: Woodman v. Miesel Sysco Food Service Co., State of Michigan Court of Appeals, No. 97-702308-CL, 11/26/02.

Incarcerated but eligible, according to FMLA regulations

If an employee was suffering from a serious health condition on the days that she was in jail, her arrest and incarceration won’t negate her entitlement to FMLA leave, stated a federal district court in Missouri.

An employee on FMLA leave was picked up for writing bad checks and for multiple traffic violations. Later, she was fired. Her employer claimed she had exceeded the time off FMLA regulations allowed her because her days in jail couldn’t be counted as FMLA leave.

However, the court rejected this argument, stating that if the employee had a serious health condition on the days that she was in jail, FMLA regulations gave her the right to leave, arrest aside.

Cite: Gurley v Ameriwood Indus, Inc, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Mo, No. 83 EPD 41,243, 12/25/02.

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