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Multiple health conditions count for FMLA leave purposes

The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota recently made a ruling that could have an important impact on employees who have multiple health conditions and want to take leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Essentially, the FMLA guarantees employees the right to take paid or unpaid leave from work to seek medical treatment or to care for dependants, and to take leave for certain other purposes. There are rules limiting the law's application, but the medical leave part of the law is intended to allow employees to address their medical needs or those of their families without fear of retaliation or termination.

In the recent case, a woman was working for an insurance marketing firm based in Plymouth. She was suffering from several medical conditions, none of which in and of itself was considered serious, but which together caused her a great deal of pain and required relatively frequent medical care. She apparently had to see a doctor during the workday about two to four times a month, and visited the emergency room about every two to three months. Because of her condition, she was "quite often" late for work, according to testimony in the lawsuit, and called in sick more frequently than her coworkers.

In July of 2010, the woman had to go to the emergency room for a flare-up. Her doctor inserted a catheter and told her not to work for two days. She let her supervisor know, but he told her that if she was absent the following Monday, she was fired. She could not return that Monday.

When she returned on Tuesday, she was still sick but said she didn't need to go home when her supervisor encouraged to do so. He then suspended her for "other work misconduct" supposedly unrelated to her FMLA leave. She threatened to sue for violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act and was terminated in retaliation.

She did bring the lawsuit, and the employer moved for summary judgment (said she had no claim.) Their argument was that the woman did not have a "serious health condition" as defined by the FMLA because she had never been unable to work for more than three days in a row.

The federal court disagreed. Instead, citing rulings from the Seventh and Eighth federal circuit courts, the court ruled that the cumulative effect of multiple health problems could meet the requirements of the FMLA, even if each individual condition might not. The question, the court said, was for a jury to decide.

While frequent lateness and above-average absences may be frustrating to employers, the Family and Medical Leave Act was meant to prevent employers from taking their frustration out on employees with health problems. If you feel you have been retaliated against or fired because you took "too much" leave under the FMLA, you should consider speaking with an attorney familiar with employment law.

Source: HR.BLR.com, "How Many Health Conditions Does It Take to Be 'Serious'?" July 5, 2012

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