- On June 3, 2015
FMLA Abuse Cases Summary: Moran v. Redford Union Schools
When an employee complains to their doctor about stress or anxiety related to their job, the physician may prescribe them time off from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act to mentally recuperate.
This ‘recuperation’ could theoretically include taking a trip to relax, but an employer could challenge the validity of an FMLA leave if it believes the employee is abusing their rights by going on vacation. An employer challenge would mandate that the employee produce documentation from their physician that essentially validates any therapy-related travel.
This was the case in Moran v. Redford Union Schools, where a school bus driver with a track record of absenteeism sought a medical leave of absence after buying plane tickets for a trip to Florida. The school district immediately suspected an FMLA abuse situation.
Theresa Moran started working for the Union Redford school district in 2001 as a part-time bus driver governed by the collective bargaining agreement established between the district and the Bus Drivers Association. Under that agreement, part-time drivers can take up to five paid days off per school year.
According to the school district, Moran developed a healthy track record of absenteeism during the course of her employment. For the 2006-2007 school year in particular, Moran took 21 days off, the school district said. On March 1, 2007, the school district issued a verbal warning to Moran regarding her attendance.
Four days later, she requested time off for her upcoming wedding. Moran’s reached a written agreement with her direct supervisor Diane Sevigny that she could take the time off, as long as Moran worked the rest of the year as scheduled. Moran signed the agreement.
Moran also established a poor attendance record during the 2007-2008 school year, and on March 10, 2008, she was given another verbal warning. The meeting was attended by both Sevigny and her union president Bob Karrick, who told Moran she was not allowed to miss any more days of work that school year.
In that very same meeting, Moran informed Sevigny she need March 31 and April 1 off because she had bought round-trip plane tickets to Florida for that weekend. Sevigny told Moran she would be “reprimanded” if she did not come into work on those days.
Moran later testified she was suffering from anxiety, insomnia and intestinal problems after that meeting. She scheduled a doctor’s appointment for March 14, 2008, and at that meeting Moran’s physician Dr. Robert Brock diagnosed her with “acute situational anxiety.”
Handwritten notes by Brock from that meeting said Brock was “very tearful” and he considered giving her off work until March 22, 2008. However, that date was struck through and replaced by April 7, 2008, the date provided on the note Moran gave to her employer. She later testified that a secretary at the school district told her she did not need to submit official FMLA paperwork.
The doctor later testified that he couldn’t recall if he later changed his mind about the date or if the change was something Moran had suggested, possibly to allow her to go to Florida. Brock said he was unaware of Moran’s plans to travel to Florida. He did not restrict her from participating in any activities in his official medical certification.
Due to the suspicious timing of the leave, the school district launched an investigation. School district staff called Moran’s doctor’s office and were told by a receptionist that she was “totally incapacitated” by her condition. Even though calls to Moran’s residence went unanswered, school district staff decided not to leave a voice message.
In a memo sent Moran and dated April 1, 2008, the school district informed her that she needed to undergo a medical evaluation, at the district’s expense, to validate her leave under the FMLA. Moran did not formally respond to this memo and on April 7 she was called and told not to report as usual, but to attend a meeting at the school board office.
At the meeting, which included both union representation and district staff, Moran was told the validity of her medical leaves was being questioned, and she was being suspended pending an investigation. In court depositions given later, both Moran and school district representative said Moran refused to give additional information on her medical situation.
After the April 8 meeting, Moran was offered a “Last Chance Agreement” in which she would have to agree to follow all rules for requesting and receiving time off, forgo the grievance procedure if she were terminated for not following these rules and release and discharge the school district from any liability regarding her employment or termination. Moran did not sign that agreement.
On May 3, 2008, Moran submitted a form to her employer that said she was suffering from “acute situational anxiety.” This was the first time the school district had been made aware of the condition that necessitated Moran’s medical leave.
Moran was officially terminated on June 11, 2008 for not signing the Last Chance Agreement. School district management later testifies that by not signing the agreement, Moran effectively abandoned her job.
District Court Case
In the case, the school district argued that Moran never engaged in leave protected under the FMLA. The school district also argued that it had a non-discriminatory reason for firing their employee: a “blatant disregard” for the attendance rules. Finally, the district said it never received a valid medical certification from Moran promptly.
Moran countered in court by saying she had been upfront about her trip to Florida and arguing that because the termination was merely a pretext, citing inconsistent reasons for terminating her. Moran also argued that the district never substantiated its theory that she was abusing her leave, and she was not legally obligated to sign the Las Chance Agreement.
The court said Moran willfully chose to ignore the fact that the Last Chance Agreement was a ‘good deed’ offered because of her poor attendance. In turn, Moran tried to use this ‘good deed’ against her former employer, the court said.
The court also pointed out that Moran’s attorney conceded the circumstances under which leave was requested and taken were highly suspicious. This combined with Moran’s attendance history led the district court to conclude that the school district was justified in the suspicion of FMLA abuse.
In addition, the court said, Moran did not sign the Last Chance Agreement when it was offered. After that refusal, the employer had a reasonable, non-discriminatory reason to fire its employee.
The case of Moran v. Redford Union Schools shows that when an employee has a poor record of attendance and puts in a suspicious request for time off, an employer has every right to ask for a timely medical validation to guard against FMLA abuse. Employers should also take note that offering a Last Chance Agreement may reflect favorably upon them if legal proceedings should arise.