Federal Appeals Court: Refusal to Comply with FMLA Obligations Justifies Adverse Employment Action

An employee who was terminated after refusing to fulfill her obligations under the Family and Medical Leave Act has no claim under the statute, the federal appellate court in Chicago has held. Ridings v. Riverside Med. Ctr., No. 06-4328 (7th Cir. Aug. 11, 2008). The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a full-time employee who refused to either work eight-hour days on-site or submit medical documentation to request FMLA leave may be terminated for absenteeism or insubordination. The court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer. The Seventh Circuit has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

The plaintiff, Janet Ridings, was a full-time exempt computer database operator in a hospital. She was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a disorder of the thyroid, and underwent surgery. She returned from FMLA leave in February 2003. Thereafter, claiming she became tired in the afternoons because of her medication, Ridings began leaving work early, without formal arrangements with her employer or requesting intermittent leave under the FMLA. She continued to work less than full days the rest of 2003.

Beginning in January of 2004, the employer told Ridings several times that she was to work full eight-hour days on the premises or submit medical documentation to formally request FMLA leave. Ridings ignored these requests. She maintained that because she brought work home, she was working her eight hours. On March 22, 2004, after the employer made yet another request for compliance, Ridings finally submitted a doctor’s note which stated that she “could not work an eight-hour day because of a medical condition until further notice.” On April 1, 2004, the employer informed Ridings that, based on the doctor’s note, she needed to complete FMLA paperwork and gave her an FMLA leave application to complete and an FMLA medical certification form for her physician to complete. The forms stated, “Form must be returned within 15 days or leave request may be delayed,” and included questions designed to determine an employee’s leave entitlement and to assess the employer’s employment needs while the employee would be working a reduced schedule.

After written warnings were issued and further requests were made for her to work full eight-hour days on the premises or complete the FMLA paperwork within 15 days—Ridings did neither—Ridings was suspended for three days without pay. She was informed in the final written warning, “Upon returning to work after the suspension, if the FMLA paperwork is not presented then further action, up to and including termination[,] may be taken.” On May 13, 2004, Ridings returned to work after her suspension without the completed FMLA paperwork and the employer terminated her employment.

Ridings sued her employer for interference with her rights and retaliation in violation of the FMLA. The district court granted summary judgment for the employer and Ridings appealed. The appellate court affirmed summary judgment for the employer on both the interference and retaliation claims.

The FMLA entitles an eligible employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period where the employee has a serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform the functions of the position. Leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced schedule when medically necessary.

The plaintiff argued that the employer interfered with her FMLA rights by not asking for medical certification and informing her of her rights, confusing “intermittent” with “reduced schedule” leave, and refusing to accept her doctor’s note as sufficient medical certification for FMLA purposes. The court rejected these arguments.

First, the court ruled that the FMLA forms the employer provided the plaintiff were requests for medical certification and adequately informed the plaintiff about her FMLA rights.

Second, the court found the employer’s medical documentation requests for “intermittent” leave rather than “reduced schedule” leave under the FMLA may have been confusing, but that was immaterial as the FMLA’s requirements for medical certifications for both types of leave are the same. Moreover, the court found significant that the plaintiff presented no evidence that the “confusion” had influenced her decision not to provide in the FMLA forms.

Finally, for intermittent or reduced schedule leave under the FMLA, an employee must present dates on which planned medical treatment is expected, the duration of the treatment, and the doctor’s statement of the medical necessity for the type of leave requested and the expected duration of the leave. In this case, the plaintiff’s doctor’s note, the only information the plaintiff provided, did not meet these requirements, the court ruled.

The plaintiff’s claim that the employer retaliated against her for her protected activity (working a reduced schedule) in violation of the FMLA also was rejected by the court. An employer is entitled to ask a full-time employee to work a full-time schedule on the premises, the court held. The employer gave the plaintiff the choice of working a full schedule on the premises or completing her FMLA paperwork. She did neither. Because the plaintiff failed to fulfill her FMLA obligations by providing the required medical certifications, she is not protected, the court held. “An employer cannot be deemed to retaliate against an employee by asking her to fulfill her obligations under the FMLA.” The court ruled that the termination was justified for absenteeism or insubordination under the employer’s policies.

Since the FMLA was signed into law 15 years ago, employers have been faced with the challenge of ensuring compliance with the statute’s requirements. It is important for employers to monitor employees’ compliance with the requirements as well as their own. Employers should work closely with counsel before terminating employees with actual or perceived disabilities. An effective defense to any legal attack on an employer’s FMLA policies and procedures is consistent application and enforcement of the policy requirements in the workplace.