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Trauma of being fired won’t extend FMLA rights

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in Firing,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

A new court ruling means you'll face less worry about legal liabilities stemming from the psychological impact of firing employees on FMLA leave.

Ordinarily, you can terminate employees if they can't return to the job after their 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Your liability ends at 12 weeks.

But clever plaintiff's lawyers recently argued an FMLA case under the so-called exacerbation theory. It goes like this: If an employer wrongly fires an employee on FMLA leave and the trauma exacerbates whatever problem the employee was having in the first place, her inability to return after 12 unpaid weeks won't end your liability. That means the employee would be able to extend her FMLA leave indefinitely.

Fortunately, the first federal appeals court to consider the exacerbation theory has soundly rejected it.

Recent case: Gale Edgar worked as an accounts payable clerk until she became so stressed out by her job that her blood pressure soared and her anxiety made it impossible to work. She took FMLA leave after her doctor certified her state as a serious health condition.

Before her 12 weeks' expired, the employer fired Edgar for not returning FMLA certification forms on time, essentially denying her leave. She sued.

During litigation, the company discovered that Edgar's doctors didn't clear her for work for 18 months. The company argued that its liability should end after 12 weeks. But Edgar's attorneys argued that since it was the company's fault she couldn't return (because its actions depressed her), then liability should continue 18 months.

Not so, said the 6th Circuit. If that were the case, such a ruling would open the litigation floodgates. Suddenly traumatized employees would stay home long after their 12 weeks of FMLA leave expired, while employers would owe back pay for wrongly refusing to reinstate them.

The better rule, concluded the court, is to measure where the employee stands when it's time to return to work. If she's still unable to work, she loses her job. (Edgar v. JAC Products, No. 05-1193, 6th Cir., 2006)

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