Employee "crying spells" or potential "flare-ups" of an "emotional" nature may be enough to substantiate a claim for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, according to an Ohio federal court. Nelson v. Clermont County Veterans Serv. Comm'n, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156935 (S.D. Oh. 2013).
This ruling is significant for Ohio employers because it may now be easier for some employees to qualify for FMLA leave with ambiguous health or emotional conditions. The ruling also demonstrates that courts may focus on an employer's response to FMLA leave or an employee's request for FMLA leave rather than the severity of the employee's health condition as a threshold for FMLA claims.
In Nelson, after an employee discovered that her teenage daughter was sexually assaulted, she requested and was approved for five weeks of FMLA leave. She claimed in her application for leave that she needed to take leave to provide "emotional support" to her daughter and to transport her to and from her medical appointments. She also claimed that her own condition warranted FMLA leave. Specifically, she provided her employer with a doctor's note that described her condition as "crying spells, no energy, can't concentrate, cannot focus."
When the employee returned from leave, she brought her daughter into the office and was repeatedly warned not to do so. When she refused to comply, she allegedly became "overloaded" by assignments from her boss. Ultimately, the employer notified the employee that she could either resign or be fired. Following a disciplinary hearing, the employer terminated her for insubordination, declining job performance and manipulation of time records prior to taking the FMLA leave.
The employee sued the employer, alleging interference with her FMLA claim, which typically requires an employee to prove he or she had a "serious medical condition" and that the employer interfered with a proper request for leave or otherwise retaliated against the employee for requesting or taking leave. In defense, the employer argued that the reasons for termination provided after the disciplinary hearing amounted to "legitimate business reasons" for terminating the employee.
The court found that the employer may have violated the FMLA because the timing of the employee's termination - nine days following her return from leave - coupled with an increased workload upon her return raised suspicion as to the employer's true motivation for terminating the employee. The court also found that the doctor's note sufficiently established the employee's entitlement to leave, despite the ambiguous nature of her "crying spells."
Decisions of this nature are in line with the US Department of Labor's promise to step up FMLA enforcement against employers. As a shield against unwanted FMLA disputes and potential liabilities, employers should focus on their response to requests for leave and on how they treat employees who take leave. In that regard, employers should always strive to demonstrate empathy for employees, to accommodate them in the workplace when doing so would be reasonable and non-disruptive and, where possible, to ease employees back into the working environment following leave to ensure they do not perceive any unfairness or persecution.