Family Medical Leave Case Summary

DARST V. INTERSTATE BRANDS CORP

While seeking medical treatment due to chronic drug or alcohol abuse is known to physicians as the start of care, is this initial action covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act as the commencement of leave?

According to a 2008 decision handed down from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, work missed due to in-patient treatment for substance abuse can be considered job-protected leave under the FMLA. However, any time missed due to use of the substance is not protected. Also, simply asking for help from a doctor – often considered the first step to recovery – isn’t covered under the FMLA with respect to the start of medical care.

Background

Krzysztof Chalimoniuk had been working for Interstate Brands Corporation (IBC) for 15 years when he was fired for excessive absenteeism.

The company’s attendance policy is structured such that an employee accrues a certain number of ‘points’ based on the degree of infraction. For example, missing a day without calling in for notification will acquire an employee with three points. Company policy states that an employee is terminated at 24 points. However, for reasons not made clear, Chalimoniuk had been allotted a termination cutoff of 32 points.

On Friday July 28, 2000, Chalimoniuk, an admitted alcoholic, picked up a large amount of alcohol after getting off from his shift at IBC. He later admitted that he consumed enough alcohol to lose his memory for two or three days.

Chalimoniuk was scheduled to come in to work July 31, August 2, and August 3. On July 29, when his spouse came to the realization he had relapsed, she contacted Fairbanks Hospital requesting medical care for her spouse. Once at the hospital, Chalimoniuk signed a consent form, which permitted the hospital and his insurance company to discuss his medical information and condition.

On August 1, Chalimoniuk called his doctor's office, but the office was closed. On Wednesday, August 2, he called the office again and was referred to Fairbanks Hospital. Chalimoniuk then called the hospital and his insurance company to set up his inpatient therapy. On Thursday August 4, Chalimoniuk was taken into the hospital for inpatient medical care of his alcoholism. He continued treatment through August 10 and returned to work on August 15.

Chalimoniuk completed two forms for his leave request: the FMLA Certification of Health Care Provider and the Health Insurance Claim form. The FMLA certification was filled out by Dr. Stephen Pfeifer, Chalimoniuk’s physician. Dr. Pfeifer indicated that Chalimoniuk's medical condition included his alcohol-related absence plus his treatment, for the period of July 29 to August 11. In the medical facts Dr. Pfeifer wrote that Chalimoniuk had “Alcohol Dependence and Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.” Chalimoniuk returned the completed certification on August 11 to IBC’s assistant human resources manager, Tonia Gordon.

Chalimoniuk also returned the Health Insurance Claim form on that same day to Tonia Gordon, however this form was filled out by a different physician, Dr. Timothy Kelly. On this form, Dr. Kelly indicated that the “dates of service” were from July 29 to August 10. Due to this slight discrepancy between the forms, Gordon called Fairbanks Hospital to verify the dates Chalimoniuk was treated at the hospital. From this call, Gordon found out that Chalimoniuk was admitted on August 4.

Gordon inquired with the Department of Labor what days of Chalimoniuk’s absence from July 29 to August 11 is covered under FMLA. The DOL responded that FMLA only covers the absences for medical treatment of substance abuse, and does not cover any time taken as a result of abuse of that substance. With this interpretation of the FMLA regulations, Gordon informed Chalimoniuk that he was terminated from IBC for exceeding the number of points permissible by company policy due to his unexcused absences on July 29, August 2, and August 3.

Chalimoniuk sued, saying he was being denied his benefits as laid out by the FMLA. The district court learned that Chalimoniuk didn't have evidence that he was in medical care for alcoholism on July 29, August 2 and August 3, and consequently granted in favor of IBC.

The Appeal Case

In the appeal, Chalimoniuk, with the support of Dr. Pfeifer, argued that treatment began with the initial phone for referral to the hospital on July 29. Chalimoniuk’s doctor presented an affidavit declaring that medical care for alcoholism starts with the first step towards seeking professional care. If the court agreed, the end result of the case would have been different as Chalimoniuk’s previous absences would have been forgiven as FMLA leave and his overall absences would not have surpassed the termination cut-off.

However, by the definitions of FMLA, medical treatment did not start until Chalimoniuk actually visited a health care provider and was examined. The court explained that simply calling for treatment doesn't fall under the FMLA. By this definition, Chalimoniuk was unable to prove that he was treated on July 29, August 2, and August 3, thereby his FMLA leave started on August 4.

The court concluded that IBC was free to terminate Chalimoniuk without violating any of the FMLA guidelines.

The Takeaway

The case offers employers insights to better understanding the FMLA regulation in regards to substance abuse. First, employers must be aware that their employees are cover by FMLA for medical care related to substance abuse under specific parameters. The case demonstrates that employees are protected by FMLA to take leave for professional care when referred by a doctor. Second, employers must distinguish that under FMLA treatment for substance abuse commences only until an employee receives inpatient or outpatient visits from a doctor. This interpretation is crucial as employers decide if an employee’s substance abuse-associated absence is FMLA approved.

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