Know the law: Simply taking FMLA leave doesn’t necessarily mean worker is disabled

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,FMLA Guidelines,HR Management,Human Resources

The ADA and the FMLA both provide substantial protections for employees with medical issues. Generally, someone whose condition qualifies as a disability under the ADA is probably also entitled to FMLA leave when that disability flares up.

But the reverse is not always true. Qualifying for FMLA leave because of a serious health condition does not automatically mean the employee is disabled and entitled to an ADA accommodation.

Recent case: Terri Nicholson worked for the West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS) as a registered nurse when she became the victim of a violent crime. She developed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and sought counseling. But she also began abusing alcohol.

Nicholson told several doctors on staff at WPAHS about the trauma she had suffered and then began showing up—clearly intoxicated—at one doctor’s home. That doctor reported the incidents to the HR office. Nicholson began requesting FMLA leave and each time was allowed to take time off. While returning from the last FMLA leave, she was presented with a last-chance agreement that included a pledge not to drink alcohol.

But Nicholson continued to drink and called a co-worker while under the influence. The co-worker reported the incident, and Nicholson was fired for violating the agreement.

She sued, alleging she was disabled and the last-chance agreement was proof that her employer at least regarded her as disabled. She offered her FMLA leave as conclusive proof of her disability. Nicholson’s only other evidence was her testimony that she sometimes had flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the crime.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case. It reasoned that simply taking FMLA leave doesn’t mean the employee is disabled. That’s because the FMLA defines a “serious health condition” quite differently than the ADA defines a disability. To be disabling, an impairment must substantially impair a major life function for more than a few days or weeks. That’s not the case under the FMLA. (Nicholson v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, No. 07-4354, 3rd Cir., 2008)

Leave a Comment