Supervisor FMLA actions cost over $600,000

Employee terminated days after taking leave

Posted December 27, 2018

April had been working for years as a 911 emergency operator, when she was diagnosed with uterine and cervical cancer, for which she took FMLA leave. April was also dealing with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and migraines, which worsened after dealing with the cancer.

Early the following year, she had a particularly severe migraine that required her to leave work. She missed three days of work during which she visited a doctor and received medication. She was given a verbal warning regarding excessive absenteeism, including the time for which she took FMLA leave.

April, however, continued to take leave as needed, including when a severe anxiety attack required her to be committed for psychiatric treatment. During this leave, Debbie, April’s supervisor, told several of April’s coworkers that she was having mental health issues, was committed to a psychiatric hospital, had attempted suicide, and that she was going to be fired.

When April returned to work, she asked that she answer telephone calls as opposed to working on the radio and dispatch, because her medications were causing side effects. Debbie denied the request. A few days later, April had another severe episode of anxiety and depression, for which she was taken to the emergency room. There, it was determined that the episode was caused by one of her medications.

A few days later, April explained to her employer that she no longer took the medication that was causing the issues, so she was ready to return to work. Instead, however, she was fired.

April sued, arguing that the employer both interfered with her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for exercising her FMLA rights.

The employer tried to argue that April declined to take FMLA leave, and as such, she was terminated, because she had no other leave that could be used to hold her job open for her. The employer also felt that April could not be allowed to handle life and death emergency calls in her condition.

Not only did the court not buy the employer’s argument, it ordered that the employer pay $81,056 in lost wages and $100,000 for emotional pain and anguish, plus another $81,056 in liquidated damages and $360,491 for attorneys; fees, for a total of $622,603.

Unfortunately, this case is one of many that illustrate how supervisors can expose an employer to expensive claims. April was entitled to FMLA leave for her qualifying reasons, and terminating her close on the heels of her exercising her FMLA rights increases the risks. Since employees have a right to have their medical information kept confidential, the supervisor also violated the FMLA when she told April’s coworkers about her condition.

Not to be overlooked, is that the employer also failed to consider its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act when April requested a workplace change (alternative work) because of her medical condition. A little training could have gone a long way in avoiding this claim.

Allen v. Banks County, No. 2:16-cv-0076, Georgia Northern District Court, December 13, 2018.

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.


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