Managing employees’ FMLA leave can be one of the most challenging and frustrating responsibilities for an HR department. So what can an employer do when an employee is slow to provide documentation and respond to exam requests? In the case of Bridget Dalpiaz, a federal appeals court ruled the employer was justified in firing her for failing to cooperate with the FMLA leave approval process.
Fired for not cooperating
Bridget Dalpiaz, who had served for 15 years as the benefits administrator for Carbon County, Utah, sued the county, alleging several claims against both the county and a number of county officials. Dalpiaz’ complaints included allegations that the county violated the Family and Medical Leave Act by terminating her and that it interfered with her FMLA rights.
Late last month, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the county’s decision to discharge Dalpiaz because she had “acted insubordinately by choosing to submit her FMLA forms at almost the literal last minute, more than seven weeks after the county made its first request for these forms to be submitted as soon as possible and after several reminders that the county was still waiting.” The court further found that the county was justified in terminating Dalpiaz who “fail[ed] to make more than a belated, half-hearted effort to comply with a direct and legitimate order” to attend an appointment with an independent physician to obtain a second opinion regarding her condition.
The court concluded that Dalpiaz was not discharged for exercising her rights under the FMLA, but because she was obstinate in the face of the county’s directions and requests. The court explained that, “Like any other county employee, [Dalpiaz] was required to comply with legitimate directions given by her supervisors, and her request for FMLA leave did not shelter her from this obligation, even when her supervisors’ instructions were related in some way to her use of FMLA leave.”
The decision recognized that when the county suspended and then terminated Dalpiaz while she was apparently on intermittent FMLA leave, the employment discharge interfered with Dalpiaz’ FMLA rights. Nevertheless, the court concluded that the record did not support an inference that Dalpiaz’ termination was related to her FMLA leave. The court likewise conceded that there was an indirect causal link between Dalpiaz’ FMLA leave and her termination. After making note of her insubordinate behavior, the court continued by stating, “Since these were forms for FMLA leave, there is an indirect causal link between Plaintiff’s exercise of FMLA leave and the ultimate termination decision.” But, the court concluded that this did not mean that Dalpiaz’ termination was “related to” her exercise of FMLA leave. The court also addressed the county’s decision to terminate Dalpiaz because of her reluctance to attend an independent medical exam to confirm the legitimacy of Dalpiaz’ entitlement to FMLA leave. The court concluded that the county had successfully established that it would have terminated Dalpiaz regardless of her request for FMLA leave, “and for the same type of conduct outside of the FMLA context.”
The court went on to state that the key question was “whether the county terminated [Dalpiaz] because it sincerely, even if mistakenly, believed she had abused her sick leave and demonstrated significant evidence of untruthfulness.” The court found that the county had lawful grounds for firing Dalpiaz. Consequently, the court dismissed her FMLA interference claims.
What do I do?
This case doesn’t mean employers are always free to fire employees seeking FMLA leave. Make sure your FMLA policy spells out an employee’s obligation when it comes to necessary documentation for seeking FMLA leave. Remind the requesting employee what is expected of them. If the employee drags their feet in providing necessary information during the FMLA request and approval process, remind them of their responsibilities and explain what may happen if they do not satisfy the FMLA documentation requests.
Dalpiaz v Carbon County, Case No. 13-4062 (10th Cir. 7/25/14)