You already knew the FMLA was a pro-employee, not necessarily pro-business, law. But this case is scary proof of how far some courts are willing to bend over backwards to give employees a shot to win FMLA lawsuits.
Here’s a scenario for you: Let’s say you give an employee a month’s notice that he needs to be at work on back-to-back days for mandatory training. Then, shortly after that notice, an employee requests those training days off because he’s “having granite countertops installed.” You deny his request.
Then, the day before training, the employee repeats his request, citing that “he needs to unwind.” Again, you deny the request.
Finally, the employee fails to show up on the training days, and you fire him.
You have an obvious reason to believe the employee was faking the “anxiety” claims, so you’ve got a strong case to present to the court, right?
Apparently, it’s not strong enough for a South Carolina federal district court.
Court: Enough notice of intent to take FMLA leave
A.O. Smith Corp., a water heater manufacturer, tried to get employee Henry Koszarsky’s FMLA interference lawsuit thrown out. But the court took a much broader look at the facts (which included those laid out above) and allowed Koszarsky’s case to stand. It will now go to trial.
The additional info the court took into account:
- In the months leading up to his termination, multiple co-workers of Koszarsky approached management with reports that he was acting unusual (one report said he was starting “rambling conversations”).
- Shortly before his termination, Koszarsky’s supervisor informed the HR department that Koszarsky had mentioned feeling stressed, wanting counseling and planning to call his doctor.
- Koszarsky had at one point told his supervisor that he was bipolar and taking anti-depressants.
- Following his termination, A.O. Smith sent Koszarsky FMLA documentation to try to better understand the reason for his absences. Koszarsky then returned the paperwork, along with a doctor’s certification, indicating he was suffering from a serious medical condition.
A.O. Smith argued that Koszarsky’s actions prior to his absences (requesting vacation time to tend to the countertop installation and a second request for time to “unwind”) proved he planned to take the training days off whether they were approved or not. Therefore, according to the company, Koszarsky’s FMLA claim shouldn’t stand.
But the court disagreed, stating the company needed to take more into account than just the vacation requests. It ruled there was enough evidence to suggest that Koszarsky may have given A.O. Smith enough notice of his intent to take FMLA leave that his rights may have been interfered with. That’s now for a trial court to decide.
Burden squarely on employers’ shoulders
This case is a classic example of how courts put the burden on employers to prove a worker wasn’t protected by the FMLA at the time of his or her termination.
Here, Koszarsky had never spoken the words “FMLA” or “medical leave” prior to his absences. Plus, his excuses for wanting to miss the training days gave no indication that he needed time off for medical reasons — in fact, it could be argued they indicated the exact opposite.
Still, the employer will now be on the hook to prove it didn’t interfere with his FMLA rights because it didn’t look at his past unusual behavior and comments about being stressed, bipolar and on anti-depressants, and issue FMLA paperwork at the outset of his vacation request.
Sounds like A.O. Smith was, and is, between a rock and a hard place.
Bottom line: If an employee’s acting strangely or has a history of illnesses, you may have to issue FMLA docs prior to making a determination about his or her employment status — or risk facing an FMLA suit.