Family Medical Leave Case Summary
Kathleen Hofferica v. St. Mary Medical Center
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is set up to afford workers to the protection to take unpaid time away from their job in order to receive treatment for a serious medical condition.
Government workers and workers at private companies with 50 or more employees all residing within 75 miles are protected under the FMLA to take unpaid time off from work in order to manage their own medical condition to care for a spouse’s, child’s or parent’s condition.
If FMLA leave is granted or even requested, the company cannot fire or otherwise penalize the worker for issues related to the request or the leave itself.
FMLA Court Case Study
Unfortunately, workers taking leave from their job can be a source of conflict and many of these conflicts can escalate to the point that the dispute winds up in court.
The case Hofferica v. St. Mary Med. Ctr. involves a woman, Kathleen Hofferica, taking unpaid time off from her employer St. Mary Medical Center as a result of suffering from Ménière’s disease, an inner ear problem that can cause balance issues.
The medical center initially hired Hofferica in June 2006 as a “Staff RN” and she had satisfactory job performance reviews throughout her tenure, according to court documents.
Hofferica was diagnosed with the condition in March 2008 and after receiving this diagnosis, Charles Kunkle, the emergency room director at St. Mary told her he was concerned that she could not adequately perform her job duties due to her condition.
On April 22, 2008, Hofferica applied for intermittent leave, as protected under FMLA laws. Hofferica was eventually granted intermittent FMLA leave, meaning she could take unpaid sporadic days or hours off for her condition or treatment: from February 5, 2008 through February 4, 2009.
However, Hofferica would later find out that she needed to undergo a number of procedures to treat her Ménière’s disease. This medical revelation led her to start a continuous block of FMLA leave, as is her right, in September 2008. She informed St. Mary’s that her doctor expected she would be back to work on November 6, 2008.
On a weekly schedule, either Hofferica or her spouse called St. Mary to offer information on her progress and her projected return date. Hofferica would later state that she called her assistant manager on November 4 to tell her return date might get pushed back, on advice from her doctor, but she was unable to get in touch with her and the call was never returned.
On November 5, the day before her original return date, Hofferica’s physician said she could go back to work on November 13. The following day, Hofferica again called to inform her supervisor of the change and to ask for extra time related to her impairment. This call was not returned either.
On November 12, Hofferica got a letter from St. Mary, dated the day after her original return date (November 7), telling her that she was dismissed due to her medical leave ending and her not coming into work at the conclusion of leave.
Hofferica then filed legal action against St. Mary, claiming violations of state and federal regulations, including FMLA laws. With respect to FMLA, she claimed her termination was retaliation for taking her protected leave.
In this FMLA court case, a claim of retaliation was made based on the assistant manager’s failure to return the plaintiffs phone calls during FMLA leave, tantamount to antagonism.
The court found that an employer’s failure to return a worker's phone calls does not prove overt antagonism, but the court said it does indicate an antagonistic mindset toward the worker, especially where such failure to respond started after the worker established FMLA leave and still happened despite regular attempts from the worker. The court ruled a 'reasonable factfinder' could determine that this conduct was enough to establish a 'prima facie,' or an initial impression, for retaliation under FMLA laws. Consequently, the court declined St. Mary’s motion to dismiss Hofferica's retaliation claim.
Takeaways for Employers
While legal conflict can be ugly, this FMLA court case can serve as a teachable moment for employers.
Companies covered under FMLA should set up a solid workflow process for communication with a worker on FMLA leave. The company is allowed under FMLA laws to mandate that the worker report in regularly throughout the leave of absence. A company can also check in with the worker if they haven't been doing so. The interval for communications is typically determined by the length of the leave, its function, and the details supplied by the worker.
Management at FMLA-covered companies should also have a general comprehension of worker and company rights and responsibilities under FMLA laws, since they are more likely to express resistance or frustration regarding workers' use of FMLA leave. Supervisors are also more likely to be in communication with the worker over the leave time frame. Any intolerance or frustration might dissuade a worker from requesting or using FMLA time allotted, and this “chilling effect” can lead to a claim for interference from a worker.
FMLA violations are a serious business and businesses must consider providing appropriate training for supervisors on FMLA to prevent mishandling a leave situation. Businesses can also consider reducing the FMLA responsibilities of the employee’s direct supervisors. The time off approvals decisions for FMLA can be assigned to a leave managements team dedicated to processing employee leaves of absences in the company. Also, it should be noted that even though the worker in the above FMLA court case did not take action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she might have done this. When a worker uses up FMLA leave, a longer leave might be a sensible allowance for a worker with a significant disability.
Both management and human resources staff should be familiar with the FMLA as well as the ADA. Proper training can help reduce the risk of legal action taken against a company, reduce conflict and contribute to a positive working environment.