Gone Fishin’ on FMLA

By Michael J. Soltis
Jackson Lewis P.C.
Feb 13, 2014

If you are well enough to fish in fishing tournaments, you are well enough to come to work, right? Most employers, I suspect, would agree with that view and would be quite upset to learn that an employee on paid FMLA leave was on the road, fishing in tournaments, earning prize money. But the situation, as reported by NBCChicago, illustrates the challenge in dealing with mental impairments under the FMLA.

The employee was a top administrator in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a pro fisherman before that. During his more than 3 months of FMLA/ sick leave in 2013, most of which was paid, he fished in numerous out-of state tournaments. He was at a tournament in Florida when he got the call requesting his resignation. DNR officials said they requested his resignation because he violated their policy of working elsewhere while on FMLA. (It is unclear how they would have responded if the administrator was fishing for recreation only.) He resigned.

You might jump to the conclusion that the administrator was not using FMLA leave for its intended purpose. But there is “another side” to the story. The administrator conceded he had been fishing while on sick leave, but produced an email from his doctor indicating that she had “encouraged” him to fish and be involved in fishing tournaments to alleviate his stress related to a medical condition. The administrator also said that DNR administrators “knew full well” where he was and what he was doing.

So what was it? A legitimate use of FMLA for a serious health condition, which required the employer to accept that its administrator could not work but could fish in fishing tournaments? Or a fish story? We’ll never know.

But in this case, the F in FMLA stands for fishing.