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Warn managers: Personal problems aren’t ‘Distractions’

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Some lawsuits are based on just a few careless comments from a supervisor. That’s especially true in cases involving employees who take time off under the FMLA.

Managers who refer to these problems as “distractions” and comment on their impact on the workplace are inviting employees to sue for retaliation or interference with their FMLA rights.

Recent case:  Benjamin Erickson worked as a train conductor and applied for a training program that would end in a promotion to engineer. Erickson had used FMLA leave a few years earlier when his mother became ill, and later when he developed skin cancer.

Erickson should have completed the training program in 26 weeks, but because his mother again became ill, he took more FMLA leave. Then, he contacted the company employee assistance program about suffering from attention-deficit disorder and depression.

The railroad extended his training program by the amount of time he took for FMLA leave. However, his immediate supervisor began making negative comments. He asked Erickson whether he was “finally done with the FMLA.” He also referred to Erickson’s “personal problems” as a “distraction.” Erickson then called in sick, missing the last day of his training. The railroad booted him from the program.

Erickson sued, alleging that he had been punished for taking FMLA leave. The court, after hearing about the supervisor’s comments, ordered a trial. It wrote that the personal problems referenced “aren’t distractions, they are part of the reason [Erickson] took FMLA leave.” Treating such personal problems so casually could demonstrate that the company resented his FMLA leave and that resentment entered into its decision to expel him from the training program on the last day. (Erickson v. Canadian Pacific Railway, No. 06-3734, DC MN, 2008)

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