The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) generally provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to an eligible employee suffering from a serious health condition.  An employee who takes FMLA leave is entitled to be restored to the job he or she held at the time the leave commenced, or to an equivalent position.  If, however, the employee is unable to return to work at the end of that 12-week period, he or she is no longer protected by the FMLA.  Roberts v. The Health Association, 2d Circ., No. 07-3553-cv, February 3, 2009.

Laura Roberts was terminated from her employment with The Health Association (THA) in June 2004.  At the time of her termination, Roberts had been out of work for approximately 10 weeks, on an approved FMLA leave.  However, at the time of Roberts’ discharge, her doctor had opined that she would be unable to work until at least July 19, 2004, which would have come after the end of her 12-week leave. 

Roberts sued her employer, alleging interference with her rights under the FMLA, and claiming retaliation for her exercise of those rights.  The district court dismissed the claims, and Roberts appealed to the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Second Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision on the basis that Roberts could not have returned to her original position at the end of her 12-week leave, based upon her doctor’s opinion.  Therefore, the Court held, Roberts was not prejudiced by the early termination.  In addition, THA actually paid Roberts for 12 weeks worth of health benefits, which is all to which she would have been entitled had she completed the 12 weeks of leave before being discharged.

In addition, Roberts was unable to show that the circumstances surrounding her termination created an inference of retaliation.  In fact, the evidence showed that Roberts was made aware that her job was in jeopardy prior to her formal request for FMLA leave.  That fact precluded Roberts from successfully alleging that her termination was based upon a protected FMLA leave request.

In addition to her FMLA claims, Roberts argued that THA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when the company fired her because it regarded her as disabled.  In order to succeed on that claim, Roberts would have to prove that THA regarded her as substantially limited in a major life activity.  Where, as in this case, the “major life activity” at issue is working, an employee is required to show that the employer believes the individual to be suffering from a condition that prevents her from working in a broad range of jobs, not simply the job she previously held.  Because Roberts did not provide such evidence regarding THA’s actions, the Second Circuit concluded that the lower court’s decision to dismiss the ADA claim was correct, as well.

The FMLA is one of the most administratively difficult federal anti-discrimination laws, partly because of its complexity, and partly because of its overlap with other federal statutes, as in this case.  It is essential that an employer understand both its obligations under the FMLA, and the rights that can be appropriately exercised by an employer in dealing with individual employees with medical impairments and serious health conditions.  In this case, the employer’s record keeping (which documented the early conversations with Roberts informing that her job was in jeopardy), along with the company’s willingness to treat Roberts fairly by allowing her to collect the 12 weeks of benefits to which she would have been entitled under the FMLA, supported the court’s decision that the company’s actions had a legitimate business basis, and did not violate federal law.

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