Family Medical Leave Case Summary
Bridget Dalpiaz v. Carbon County Utah Rose Barnes
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, qualifying workers can take up to 12 weeks of job-protected time off work to take care of their own serious medical condition. The law applies to all government workers, as well as qualifying workers at large private companies.
When a worker asks for leave under FMLA laws due to a severe injury or illness, their employer is within their rights to ask for validation of the condition from a medical doctor. The doctor can be the worker’s own physician or medical specialist.
If there is anything that needs to be cleared up after the exam results have been reported to the company, the employer can contact that doctor – provided that the worker’s immediate supervisor isn’t the one making contact.
If the company then disputes the results of the independent medical exam, it can pay for a second opinion from another doctor that the company is not directly affiliated with. If these the original medical opinion and the second opinion do not agree, the company can then pay for a third final and binding opinion.
Taking time away from work can be a point of contention between workers and occasionally conflicts related to leave the result in an FMLA court case.
FMLA Case Study: Dalpiaz v. Carbon County, Utah
Bridget Dalpiaz was employed as a human resources coordinator for Carbon Country, Utah, from February 1995 until September 2009, when she was fired for not properly validating her FMLA leave.
As an HR worker, Dalpiaz made doctor’s appointments for brand new workers and was very acquainted with the procedure for taking FMLA leave. She also had positive job performance assessments and no disciplinary actions taken against her when she was tragically in a motor vehicle accident in April 2009.
After her car accident, Dalpiaz did not come into work from April 3 through July 13. As a result of prolonged absence, her boss asked for her to complete FMLA paperwork and sent her a form through the mail in May 2009. Dalpiaz did not reply and did not return completed paperwork.
The manager then emailed Dalpiaz, asking for the FMLA form at the earliest opportunity. Dalpiaz did not reply to this email either. Finally, the county attorney then sent Dalpiaz a correspondence on June 30, informing her that she must turn in the form by July 10. Dalpiaz finally did return the FMLA paperwork at 4:22 p.m. on July 10.
Dalpiaz would eventually return on July 13, but when she came back to work, it was on a limited basis: two hours each day, two days a week, per the limitations set by her spine specialist.
Dalpiaz's supervisor then started to hear reports that she was engaging in activities inconsistent with a person suffering from a severe spinal condition – such as playing football, doing work in her yard and changing kids' costumes at a dance recital. These reports eventually manifested in eight written statements from Dalpiaz's coworkers.
Due to these written and verbal reports, the county asked for Dalpiaz to undergo an independent medical exam and gave her three doctors to select from for the examination. Dalpiaz never replied to this request for a medical exam. The county attorney then mailed another a letter asking for her to set up for an exam by August 3, and informing her that not doing so could lead to disciplinary action. Dalpiaz said she tried to set up the exam, but she had to get a referral.
However, rather than getting the referral, she mailed a letter to the county attorney concerning the referral and inquired if it were now county policy have workers to undergo mandatory independent medical exams.
Ultimately, Dalpiaz was terminated. The county gave four leave-related reasons for her dismissal: failure to hand in the completed FMLA forms in a timely manner, failure to set up an independent medical exam, substantial reports regarding the illegitimacy of her injuries and misuse of sick leave time. Dalpiaz then filed a federal complaint based on several reasons, including that county interfered with her right to leave under FMLA laws.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals would eventually hear this case and in July 2014, the court judged in favor of the county, ruling there wasn't any proof of FMLA interference.
The court established that Dalpiaz was eligible for FMLA leave, and the county may have taken an undesirable motion which interfered with her ability to take time off under FMLA laws. However, the court ruled that the county would have been within its rights to fire Dalpiaz despite what her FMLA status was.
The Tenth Circuit mentioned considerable evidence supporting the county’s seemingly honest position in questioning Dalpiaz’s honesty concerning the scope of her injuries and exploitation of sick leave. The Tenth Circuit also mentioned that the county was justified in its concern with Dalpiaz not returning the FMLA forms within a reasonable time period as instructed by her supervisor, instead deciding to return the forms at the eleventh hour. Dalpiaz also didn't make an appointment for the medical exam as instructed and did not supply a good faith attempt to schedule an appointment, the court said. All of this evidence, viewed in a perspective most favorable to Dalpiaz, reinforced the county’s firing of their employee.
Takeaway for Employers
This FMLA court case doesn’t support organizations firing their workers for simply taking leave under FMLA laws. However, it does emphasize the fact that it is a worker's responsibility to supply the necessary paperwork and medical validation for FMLA leave. The qualified worker should be told what they are responsible for at the time of the request. If the worker delays in delivering necessary details during the FMLA request process, they should once again be informed of their responsibilities and told what may occur if they do not fulfill the FMLA paperwork requests.