Worker axed for FMLA abuse – but was it?

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

Supervisor Ed Conyers pointed to the chair at the side of his desk, as Stan Behmann stepped into his glass-walled office.

“I’ll get right to the point, Stan,” Ed said. “I think you faked your reason for taking FMLA leave this time around. I believe that you were actually on vacation.”

“That’s not true,” Stan replied. “I told you up front that I needed FMLA leave to take care of my dad. He’s terminally ill with cancer and needs a lot of help.”

“I understand that,” Ed nodded. “And we’ve given you plenty of leave in the past. But this is different. You gave us false reasons for taking leave, and that’s FMLA abuse—grounds for termination.”

Chores around the house

Stan was getting angrier by the minute. “Let’s look at the facts here,” he said. “I told you I needed leave to help my father move. As it turned out, he didn’t have to move after all. So I helped out around the house with chores and such. That’s not FMLA abuse.”

“I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like medical care to me,” Ed replied. “It sounds like something you could have done at night and on weekends—taking time off of work for household chores is FMLA abuse.”

Ed leaned forward. “When you found out there was no need to move him, you should have come back to work. It’s just not right to take all that time off when you didn’t need to. I know you have other family in the area that could help with things like cutting the grass and painting. That doesn’t sound like ‘medically necessary’ care to me.”

Confession of FMLA abuse, or bad choice of words?

“And here’s the kicker,” Ed continued. “Three days ago, when you finally did come back, HR asked why you stayed out, and you said, ‘because I was on vacation.’”

“It was a bad choice of words, I’ll admit,” Stan said. “But leave is leave, in my opinion. What difference does it make?”

“Because I’m short staffed and we have work that needs to get done, that’s why,” Ed said. “And you committed FMLA abuse. We’re terminating you, effective immediately.”

“You just earned yourself a lawsuit,” Stan huffed. “I think you are just retaliating because I took three weeks off as FMLA leave and you don’t like the idea.”

Stan later sued for FMLA discrimination. Did he win?

Management Lessons

Yes. An appeals court ruled that a jury should decide the case. That usually translates into a hefty out-of-court settlement.

The court said a jury might find that the company’s reason for the firing could have been retaliatory, rather than a lawful termination resulting from FMLA abuse.

Reasons:

  • Handling chores around the house for a terminally ill parent can qualify as FMLA leave.
  • Terminating Stan may not have been justified by the facts. The company couldn’t prove that Stan only wanted leave to help his father move.
  • The termination, only three days after Stan returned to work, was suspicious.

Take-away: Caring for a terminally ill parent is an emotion-laden situation. Be sure to document the reasons behind such FMLA leaves, monitor the situation and be careful about taking any adverse action.

Cite: Stallings v. Hussmann Corp., No. 05-1882, 8th Cir., 5/19/06.

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