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Firing Employees on FMLA Leave: A Cautionary Lesson for Employers

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Employees often need to take leaves of absence for family and/or medical reasons, such as for the birth or adoption of a child or to obtain medical treatment or to care for a close family member. The Family and Medical Leave Act and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-projected leave for certain family and medical reasons. In the current economy, many employers act hastily and fire employees who miss work. While employers have the right to insist on regular attendance by their employees, that right must give way to an employee’s right to statutorily-protected leave for reasons covered by the FMLA. A recent decision, Clinkscale v. St. Therese of New Hope, by the Eighth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals (which covers Missouri and other states) illustrates how an employer can make mistakes and run afoul of the FMLA when dealing with an employee who requests time off work.

In Clinkscale, the court reversed the District Court that granted summary judgment in favor of a Minnesota employer and held that there was an issue of fact (for a jury to decide) as to when the employer received notice of employee’s need for FMLA leave. Ruby Clinkscale the Plaintiff, asserted a claim of interference by her employer, St. Therese of New Hope, under the FMLA. The trial court disagreed and reasoned that she had been fired prior to her notifying her employer of her need to leave, or in the alternative, that she was terminated for reasons not relevant to the FMLA.

Clinkscale worked as a nurse in the St Therese’s rehabilitation unit from 2005 to 2010. It was understood that employees may be “floated” to different units within the hospital; however, Clinkscale only received training for work in the rehabilitation unit. On October 11, 2010, she was reassigned to the hospital’s long-term care unit.

Clinkscale experienced undiagnosed anxiety about possibly working in a different unit for which she was not trained. Clinkscale reemphasized this fear to her supervisors and told them that she was not unwilling to work; only that she wanted to reiterate an earlier request for unit-specific training before going to a reassignment. Her supervisors told her she had to work or she wouldn’t have a job and that she could potentially lose her license due to patient abandonment. Clinkscale then immediately went to the hospital’s human resources (HR) department and complained about her situation. Clinkscale exhibited classic signs of a panic attack, and she was crying and shaking so severely and at one point even requested an ambulance. The director advised her to go home for the day, and said they would work something out the next day.

Clinkscale made an appointment with her doctor for the following morning of October 12. The doctor advised therapy and prescribed medications, and in a note addressed to St. Therese, he recommended that Clinkscale take the remainder of the week off. Clinkscale delivered this note to the HR department later that morning; in return they gave her FMLA forms for her doctor to complete. However, later that day, the HR department called Clinkscale at her residence and told her that she had been terminated the day before for “walking off the job.” Two days later, on October 14, her doctor returned the forms and described her condition as one “suffering from anxiety and panic attacks” and requested she be excused from work for a week due to this condition. On October 22, St. Therese filed a complaint against Clinkscale with the Minnesota Board of Nursing and alleged that she had “refused work assignment & walked out.”

Clinkscale filed suit against St. There and claimed that the hospital impermissibly interfered with her right to take reasonable leave for medical reasons in violation of the FMLA. St. Therese moved for summary judgment and argued that Clinkscale wasn’t an employee when she asserted her FMLA rights; therefore she wasn’t entitled to FMLA leave. The District Court sided with St. Therese and concluded that the employer did not have timely notice of her medical leave prior to her termination, and Clinkscale appealed.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the FMLA entitles an employee to twelve workweeks of leave during any twelve-month period if she has a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.” ((29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)). The Court also stated that the only issue on appeal was whether Clinkscale could establish a case of interference with her FMLA rights (a question of fact for the jury) because her diagnosed anxiety incapacity for a week met the FMLA standard for a “serious health condition.” The court stated that when leave is needed for an unforeseen event, the standard is whether the notice was given “as soon as practicable”. The court then reasoned that Clinkscale’s doctor’s note fell within this standard.

The Court rejected the employer’s argument that Clinkscale was no longer an employee because of her supervisors seeing her exit as quitting. It noted that she had left based on instructions she received from HR, and that a question of material fact remained as to whether the employer was notified of the FMLA leave request before it determined that her employment had ended.

Ultimately, the Eight Circuit reversed the lower court and concluded that in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Clinkscale, a reasonable jury could conclude that she satisfied the FMLA’s notice requirement by providing notice of her need for medical leave as soon as was practical or, in the alternative, that she has been terminated for taking such leave when a serious health condition prevented her from fulfilling her work duties.

For employees, this means that employers cannot rush to fire you and “jump the gun” if and when you ask for FMLA leave. However, it also means that if employees need to go on FMLA leave for any medical or familial reason, they should act as quickly as possible to notify their employer of the need for leave.

If you believe your employer has violated your rights to family or medical leave, or if you want to learn more about your rights, you should contact a St. Louis employment lawyer.

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