An employer’s reliance on workers’ compensation and its failure to inform an injured employee of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) doom its summary judgment claim, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

The employer, a housekeeping firm that contracted cleaning services to hospitals, employed the plaintiff as a housekeeper for many years. During a night shift, the employee tripped over a table leg, injuring her knee. Her supervisor immediately took her for an X-ray, and the examining physician’s assistant gave her a three-day medical excuse.

The employee was off work for 11 days, during which time she received a cortisone shot and was referred for physical therapy several times per week for six to eight weeks. The doctor issued a light-duty medical release that restricted her from squatting, kneeling and climbing, and she returned to work.

The employer did not provide the employee with any information about eligibility for leave and rights under the FMLA at the time of her injury. Instead, the employer immediately handled the injury as a workers’ compensation claim.

At a follow-up visit, the doctor concluded that the employee had reached “maximum medical improvement with a zero-percent disability rating” and cleared her to resume her regular-duty position. However, the company’s workers’ compensation policy required her to pass an essential-functions test, which required her to complete certain physical tasks of which the doctor was unaware. Among these tasks were 10 deep-knee squats. The employee complained of knee pain after the fifth squat. Despite her recent injury and complaints of knee pain, her supervisor allegedly insisted that she complete the remaining squats.

At that point, the employee asked her supervisor if she could use accrued sick and vacation leave to provide additional recovery time to allow her to finish the essential-functions test upon her return from leave. The supervisor allegedly refused, insisting that she finish the test that day.

When she was unable to finish the test, the supervisor immediately fired her. The employee’s inability to pay for medical treatment delayed follow-up for four months until she obtained a settlement of her workers’ compensation claim. She again resumed medical appointments with a second doctor and underwent additional physical therapy.

She fully recovered when she was finally able to take 12 continuous weeks of therapy and appropriate treatment. The employee now claims that she can perform all duties and functions required of her regular-duty position with the employer.

The employee sued her employer for interfering with the exercise of her right to FMLA leave. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

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On appeal, the 11th Circuit noted that to establish an FMLA interference claim, an employee must show she was entitled to a benefit under the FMLA, that her employer denied her that benefit and that she suffered harm that is remediable by either damages or equitable relief.

Considering whether the employee showed she was entitled to an FMLA benefit, the court found ample evidence that her knee injury served as a qualifying reason to take FMLA leave. She was excused from work for incapacity for three consecutive days, and she was receiving continuing treatment from the first doctor who prescribed continuing physical therapy.

As for whether the employee placed her employer on sufficient notice of its duty to inform her of her right to FMLA leave, the court held that a reasonable jury could conclude so. The supervisor, who was also the company’s FMLA administrator, handled the employee’s workers’ compensation and injury paperwork, knew that she had been excused from work for three days, and personally accompanied her to her medical appointments and physical therapy sessions. Stating that these facts demonstrated knowledge of the nature of the injury and the employee’s potential qualification for FMLA leave, the court found that the employee had established that she was entitled to an FMLA benefit, thus meeting the first element of an FMLA-interference claim.

Turning to the question of whether the employer denied the employee FMLA leave benefits, the court noted that the employer knew of the employee’s workers’ compensation claim the day after her injury. Although this triggered the employer’s duty to provide her with FMLA notice within five business days, the company never offered her FMLA eligibility and rights-and-responsibilities notice at any point. The court discounted the employer’s argument that it handled the employee’s injury through workers’ compensation from the date of her injury through her return to light duty, noting that FMLA regulations specify that “the workers’ compensation absence and FMLA leave may run concurrently.”

Further, the employee’s acceptance of the light-duty position did not relieve the company of its FMLA obligations as it argued. The employee was entitled to decline the light-duty job offer, but she “never had the opportunity to decide between the light-duty position or taking unpaid FMLA leave” because her employer “made that choice for her by offering only a light-duty assignment,” the court said, finding that the employer had failed to satisfy its FMLA notice obligations.

Finally, examining whether the employee can demonstrate harm resulting from her employer’s interference with her exercise of an FMLA benefit to which she is entitled, the court concluded that an issue of fact exists over whether an uninterrupted 12-week FMLA leave period would have made a difference to whether the employee could have passed her essential-functions test and returned to work. The doctors she consulted had differing opinions as to whether she could have returned to complete knee function without a total knee replacement, which would have taken more than 12 weeks’ recovery time.

However, the court said, the employer is mistaken in suggesting that the employee must definitively prove that she would have been able to recover within 12 weeks to win on summary judgment. “The evidence … produced is enough to allow a reasonable jury to find in her favor. Requiring ironclad proof is more than summary judgment requires, and in a situation like this one, it would allow an employer to benefit from its failure to comply with the FMLA and provide the required notice.”

The employee argued that if the employer had given the proper notice, she would have taken her FMLA leave and received a lump-sum payout of her accrued paid and vacation leave as required under the employer’s FMLA policy; however, she lost out on the lump-sum payment because her employer did not provide the required notice. The court found that this evidence satisfied the final element of a successful interference claim: harm. The court ruled that the employee’s claim survived summary judgment and sent the case to trial.

Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems LLC, 11th Cir., No. 19-13461 (April 6, 2021), petition for rehearing denied (June 3, 2021).

Professional Pointer: When faced with a workplace injury claim, employers must keep in mind the interplay between workers’ compensation, the FMLA and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Analysis should start with evaluating the employee’s circumstances under each law; considering each law’s requirements, including leave rights, benefits while on leave, medical documentation, and reinstatement rights; and finally applying whichever law best benefits the employee.

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer based in Washington, D.C.

Originally found on SHRM Read More

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