In an unpublished opinion issued on October 8, 2013, Owens v. Calhoun County School District, No. 12-60897, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer on a claim brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The interesting—and somewhat unexpected—basis for the decision was that the employer fired the employee because she had failed to return in a timely matter from a medical leave that she had taken under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Many employers are hesitant to tackle the overlap between the ADA and the FMLA, because of the two statutes’ different legal standards. To support a valid FMLA claim, a plaintiff typically must show a serious health condition. For an ADA claim, on the other hand, the plaintiff typically must show a disability that substantially limits a major life activity. The challenging situation for employers involves employees who are on FMLA leave with a serious health condition that is also an impairment significant enough to constitute a disability for purposes of the ADA. In those cases, the employer must carefully review and document its reasons for any decision related to the employee’s return from leave—including termination of employment—before any need for accommodation is discussed.
Karen Darlene Mann Owens was a teacher at Bruce Upper Elementary School, which is part of the Calhoun County, Mississippi School District, . For a number of years prior to her firing, Owens had suffered from back and neck pain. On October 19, 2009, Owens underwent surgery on her neck and back, following which she took a leave of absence under the FMLA.
On January 20, 2010, the school principal, Paula Monaghan, asked Owens when she would be returning to work. Owens replied that she had a doctor’s appointment on February 12, 2010 and would have more information at that time.
After that discussion, Calhoun County’s superintendent, Mike Moore, sent a letter to Owens, warning her that her FMLA leave would soon expire and requesting that Owens provide a return to work date. Owens did not provide a date, but again stated that she had a doctor’s appointment on or about February 12, 2010.
On February 9, 2010, Moore sent a letter to Owens terminating her employment for failing to return to work before her FMLA leave expired on February 1 and for failing to provide a return to work date.
Owens unsuccessfully appealed her discharge to the Calhoun County school board. She then filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the ADA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the FMLA, along with a state law breach of contract claim and claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution (related to statements that she had made in an attempt to secure educational support for her son). After the dismissal of all of her claims, and a series of procedural issues, Owens appealed only the dismissal of her ADA claim and her First Amendment retaliation claim to the Fifth Circuit.
The Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of Owens’s First Amendment claim, because such a claim requires speech related to a “matter of public concern” and Owens had simply alleged that she was fired for attempting to seek educational support for her son—a private matter.
The Fifth Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Owens’s ADA claim on the basis that Owens had failed to provide evidence that the school district’s reason for firing her (her failure to provide a return-to-work date after her FMLA leave) was a pretext for disability discrimination. To the contrary, the court found that the record was “replete with evidence that Owens was fired for reasons other than her disability,” including the fact that Owens admitted that she had failed to return to work at the expiration of her FMLA leave and, more importantly, had failed to provide a date on which she would return to work, or any documentation from her doctor that she was cleared to return to work at any point.
Ultimately, Owens was unable to present any evidence that the school district’s reason for her discharge was a pretext for disability discrimination. The school district’s documentation of its communications to Owens informing her of the expiration of her FMLA leave, and its attempts to obtain her return-to-work date led to success in this matter. This decision shows that the importance of clear, contemporaneous, and objective documentation cannot be overstated.