Family Medical Leave Case Summary

Franzen v. Ellis Corporation

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is designed to give workers the protection to take unpaid leave from their job during serious medical or family situations. Unfortunately, workers taking sudden leave from their responsibilities can be damaging to a company from time to time and these divergent interests can result in conflicts.

Occasionally, these conflicts will reach a point where they must be resolved through an FMLA court case.

Franzen v. Ellis Corporation - Background

The case Franzen v. Ellis Corporation was centered around a communication breakdown between a worker out for a medical reason and his employer.
Ellis Corporation hired Richard Franzen as a technical engineer from 1999. Following April 2002, Franzen was very seriously injured within an automobile crash.
Complaining of significant back pain, Franzen made several visits to doctors after his accident. When initial medical care failed, he visited Avi Bernstein, an orthopedic surgeon.

On May 2, 2002, he called his company's human resource manager and shared with her that he had been seriously hurt and was uncertain when he could possibly come back to work. During this exchange, the HR manager asked for a doctor's note so as to establish his entitlement to receive FMLA leave and any disability benefits. On June 13, 2002, Bernstein issued the doctor's note proclaiming that Franzen was temporarily disabled and incapable of work until further notice.
In July 2002, Franzen underwent surgery to repair his spine. While the surgery was effective from a medical point-of-view, Franzen still reported significant pain in the months that ensued. In December, Bernstein, as a part of Franzen's application for Social Security benefits, stated that Franzen was permanently and completely disabled, meaning he could not come back to work.

The company would later terminate Franzen, saying it had never received the proper completed FMLA paperwork.

In January 2003, Franzen filed a complaint in the United States District Court claiming that his former employer, Ellis, committed FMLA violations in dealing with his situation. He also claimed that Ellis had violated his employment contract by neglecting to offer temporary disability benefits, and broke a state law that forbids retaliatory termination.

The federal court dismissed all claims on summary judgment, including the FMLA violation claim, which Franzen did not challenge. The district court questioned if Franzen had truly given Ellis the necessary paperwork required for his receipt of FMLA leave.

Determining Liability Under FMLA Laws

In April 2006, a jury trial took place only on the issue of liability. The sole issue at stake was if Ellis had gotten the necessary medical paperwork from Franzen before May 28, 2002. If it had not acquired the requisite paperwork, Franzen was not eligible for FMLA protection. If it had, then its discharge of Franzen was in violation of FMLA laws.

To support his case, Franzen offered the testimony of Tamara Herman, an office worker employed by his personal physician, who testified that she had faxed a note from Franzen's physician to Ellis' HR department stating that he was unable to come back to work in the short term.

Interestingly, Herman also testified that she did not notice Franzen’s having difficulties walking in or around the doctor’s office. While an unimpaired walk is not a sign of Franzen’s ability to come back to work, he would later contend that he could in fact have worked and earned a paycheck.

Ellis countered through testimony from the HR manager who testified that she had not acquired the necessary paperwork from Franzen before May 28, 2002, despite several phone calls letting him known that she had to get it by that date. She also explicitly denied having obtained the relevant fax from the doctor’s office before May 28.

After deliberation, the jury established that that Ellis had turned in the requested medical paperwork by May 28, 2002.

Determining the Damages of the FMLA Violation

The district court then held trial to figure out the appropriate quantity of damages to award to Franzen, who sought almost $1 million in both back pay and pay that he would have earned from May 28, 2002 all the way through to his planned retirement at age 65.

Ellis offered evidence that Franzen was either reluctant or unable to come back to work at any moment after his accident, and therefore ineligible to earn any kind of pay whatsoever. The company pointed to Franzen's earlier deposition assertions that he was totally disabled and unable to work after his accident. Ellis also offered testimony from the surgeon and pointed out that Franzen had declined to appear for depositions because he had claimed to have been too ailing to attend. The company also asserted that Franzen failed to mitigate his financial losses by searching for alternate employment.

On April 3, 2007, the district court agreed with the employer, determining that Franzen had not established that he was eligible for any damages and saying that if Franzen had been able to work and earn money (back pay), “there is no evidence that he mitigated his damages.”

The court also pointed out that Franzen was never able to convincingly push back against Ellis’ assertion that he was either unable or unwilling to work after getting into the automobile accident, despite testimony from two doctors who had treated him.

The Fight Over Attorney’s Fees

Next, Franzen asserted that he was eligible for an award of attorneys' fees because the jury had discovered that his former employer had violated FMLA laws. He argued that the jury's verdict on the issue of liability was enough to shift his fees to Ellis.

However, US federal court found that Ellis would have been responsible for attorney’s fees if Franzen had been awarded damages. Since he was not, the court found that Franzen never suffered financial damages and therefore could not get his attorney’s fees covered.

FMLA Court Case Conclusions

While the FMLA court case determined that Ellis had acted improperly when it came to handling Franzen’s request for unpaid leave, the decision did not mean that the company had stripped him of his ability to earn wages.

Had a court established that Franzen was entitled to a single dollar, it appears likely that he would have been able to shift his attorney’s fees over to the defendant.

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