Court Case on Termination despite the FMLA Rights

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees the right to take leave from their job without fear of being terminated, an employee can still be fired while on that leave without having their FMLA rights violated.

A 2013 court case highlights the idea that FMLA employee rights are not a protective shield against termination.

In Gambini v. Total Renal Care, Inc., a female employee was allowed to take unpaid leave under the FMLA, but was still fired due to an incident unrelated to her FMLA rights. A district court found that the company did not breach any FMLA rights and responsibilities, and an appellate court upheld this decision.

Case Background

In November 2000, Stephanie Gambini started working as a contracts clerk at DaVita, a business that supplies dialysis to kidney patients. Even before her employment with the company, Gambini had a background of mental health difficulties. After multiple months at DaVita, she started to suffer from anxiety and depression, and in April 2001 she had an emotional breakdown on the job. Gambini ultimately met with a mental health professional who said her symptoms were commensurate with bipolar disorder.

Upon going back to work, Gambini informed her supervisor that she was trying to find medical care for her bipolar condition. Gambini also informed her fellow employees she was going through some sudden changes in mood, using therapeutic drums to stabilize her mood and asked her peers to not take personal offense if she was irritable or short with them. Gambini privately told her boss that she was visiting a therapist and being affected by medication issues.

Gambini's bipolar symptoms grew in April 2002, and she told a fellow coworker, who also lived with bipolar disorder, that she had a hard time with her job due to her symptoms. That co-worker suggested Gambini see a particular psychiatric nurse practitioner, who validated Gambini's bipolar condition.

Meanwhile, management at DaVita had been discussing Gambini’s declining mental condition and job performance. To handle the situation, a team of managers drew up a performance-improvement plan to present to Gambini.

On coming to the performance meeting, Gambini was agitated due to the fact she did not know the point of the meeting. When she was given the plan, which started with a statement saying her “attitude and general disposition are no longer acceptable,” Gambini started to weep. The remainder of the plan failed to ease Gambini's mood as she noticed a tightening in her chest, shortness of breath and physical trembling. When she finished, Gambini threw the plan on the desk, launched a string of profanities, and said it was unwarranted.

After storming out of the meeting and slamming the door behind her, Gambini was seen kicking and throwing things back at her cubicle. At that point, Gambini tried to call the nurse practitioner to tell her about the meeting and how it was triggering suicidal thoughts.

The next day Gambini went back into work, where she received a return phone call from the nurse practitioner. Alarmed by the talk of suicide on the previous day, the medical professional told Gambini to check herself into a hospital for treatment. She agreed and informed her boss of the decision. Her supervisor responded by calling Gambini’s boyfriend and asking him to pick her up and take her to the hospital. When the boyfriend arrived, Gambini’s boss provided him with the proper FMLA forms. The forms were completed, and FMLA leave was subsequently approved by DaVita.

Meanwhile, the company’s human resource manager started research into the “performance plan meeting” with Gambini by meeting with her supervisors. During the investigation, the HR manager asked Gambini's immediate supervisor via email about her expected date of return. Throughout the same time period, multiple employees sent emails to HR stating concerns around Gambini's outburst. One employee expressly asked for Gambini to be prevented from going back to work.

Ultimately, the decision was made to call Gambini on her cell phone to inform her that her job was being terminated. Three days later, Gambini sent the company a letter declaring that her behavior throughout the July 11 meeting was the result of her bipolar disorder and requested that DaVita reverse its termination of her job. When the company refused, Gambini filed for legal action.

The Court Case

At trial in a district court, Gambini objected to the jury instructions that she said were biased against her case. The jury would eventually return a judgment in favor of the company, and Gambini appealed the decision.

In the appeal, Gambini argued that jury instructions in the district court trial failed to tell the jury that DaVita had the burden of proving her leave was not a factor in her termination. However, the court said, DaVita offered sufficient proof that it would have fired her for conduct despite any leave situation.

The court also said that there was no evidence that the company would have kept Gambini had she stayed on the job. While FMLA rights and responsibilities afford an employee reinstatement to their job or an equivalent position after leave has ended, the law does not protect an employee from discipline or termination for reasons unrelated to FMLA leave.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): A Side Note

While both courts found that Gambini’s FMLA rights were not violated by her termination, the appellate court did conclude that the jury should have been instructed to consider if DaVita’s decision were influenced by her bipolar disorder.

A person’s mental disability does not preclude them from discipline or termination; however, in certain situations such actions could be seen as discrimination. The court brought up the issue of threat or safety and if employees at DaVita did genuinely feel threatened by Gambini's mental state, action against her could be warranted. If her behavior was not seen as a threat and simply "different," the company may very well have had a valid discrimination case on their hands.

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