Family Medical Leave Case Summary
Brian K. Dotson v BRP US Inc
Injuries can be common in some jobs involving physical labor and an injury that causes a worker to miss more than their allotted leave time could cause the employee to be terminated. This occurred in the case of Brian K. Dotson v BRP US Inc.
Dotson suffered a back injury while drilling and cutting parts underneath boats for BRP. The injury was determined to be a serious by a doctor and caused Dotson to burn through his 12 weeks of leave allotted under FMLA. When Dotson didn’t come into work after his 12 weeks were up, he was fired in accordance with BRP’s attendance policy.
Dotson then took legal action against BRP, claiming that the company made him use up his FMLA leave instead of affording him leave under temporary disability time, as authorized under Illinois state law. The federal district court sided with BRP, saying that an employee can be fired for excessive absenteeism. An appellate court later upheld the decision.
In 1999, Dotson started work for BRP as a person who performs “grind and trim” duties. On January 7, 2004, Dotson hurt his back on the job and stopped coming into work after two or three days of coming in on light duty.
One month after his injury, on February 13, Dotson saw a doctor for a medical evaluation with respect to workers’ compensation. In March, surgery was conducted on Dotson's back and he was given a restricted duty release, set to go into effect at the end of June. Dotson was finally released for full work duty in August. From the time of his injury until the full release, Dotson was not able to carry out job activities on account of his injury.
As protected under the FMLA, Dotson was allowed to miss up to 12 weeks of work, or 480 hours, without fear of losing his job or otherwise being penalized by his employer. However, before injuring his back, Dotson had already used 286 hours of FMLA during that 12-month period.
The company told Dotson that his situation might qualify for leave under the FMLA and that he had 194 hours of leave remaining under the law. Dotson was also told that his workers’ compensation benefits would run concurrently, or at the same time, as his FMLA leave time.
Dotson had also been informed that he could be terminated for missing work after his FMLA leave concluded via the BRP employee handbook: “An employee who is unable to work for more than twelve weeks will be considered automatically terminated at the expiration of that period, regardless of the reason for the inability to work,” the handbook read. The company also had a history of enforcing this attendance policy.
Initially, Dotson questioned whether he even needed to use FMLA leave, as his absence could be covered under his workers’ compensation benefits. The company responded that he needed to file for FMLA leave or be terminated immediately. Dotson then reluctantly filed his completed FMLA paperwork. With his FMLA-covered hours having ended on February 23, 2004 and not having been released by medical doctors, BRP sent Dotson a termination letter the next day because of his absenteeism.
Dotson then sued the company over alleged violations of state workers’ compensation laws.
In making his case, Dotson alleged that he was harmed by three actions of BRP. First, he said the company fired him after he tried to come back on restricted duty. Second, he said BRP forced him to use FMLA time when workers’ comp benefits could be applied. Third, Dotson claimed that BRP wrongfully fired him for trying to claim workers’ comp benefits.
The district court found in favor of BRP, stating that the company had every right to fire Dotson under its attendance policy, which Dotson agreed to as part of his terms of employment.
Dotson then appealed the decision and reframed the case based on eight separate claims issues. Whether they related to the FMLA or workers’ compensation laws, most of these issues were related to the idea that Dotson was retaliated against for making a leave or compensation claim.
In a retaliation case, the employee has the burden of proof to show a connection between their termination and their claim. However, the court pointed out that an employer can fire an employee who is injured and cannot perform their job, or for excessive absenteeism. Furthermore, BRP contended that it did not fire Dotson for making any claim, but because he has used up his leave allotment under FMLA.
While both parties in the dispute agreed that Dotson had a serious injury he suffered on the job and that he missed more than 12 weeks of work, they did not agree Dotson should have to use leave under the FMLA. However, if Dotson’s leave was not covered under the federal law, then he needed to justify his absence another way that would be found to be acceptable under BRP’s attendance policy.
The appellate court also said that even though Dotson’s injury was suffered in the line of work. He could still be fired for missing work due to that injury. It added that an employer has the right to designate an absence as falling under the FMLA.
The appellate court also struck down Dotson’s third main argument that BRP illegally counted his time collecting workers’ comp concurrently with his FMLA leave time. Yet, the FMLA explicitly states that an employer can count these times concurrently, given that an appropriate notice is provided.
Because proper notice was given, the court ruled BRP was within its rights to count the times concurrently and fire Dotson after his FMLA leave hours were spent.
While some companies might provide leeway for injured workers, especially those hurt on the job, they are not mandated to do so. BRP made it a part of company policy not to provide leeway, and Dotson had agreed to accept this policy as a part of his terms of employment.