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Serious illness, not just its symptoms, triggers FMLA

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Issue: Can employees earn FMLA leave if they just show symptoms of an ailment that eventually becomes a qualifying "serious condition?"

Benefit: The answer is "No." You don't have to "play doctor," wondering if an ailment will become FMLA-eligible.

Action: Feel free to reject FMLA requests for less-serious illnesses and ailments that don't meet the law's standard.

The next time you're asked to consider a request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), remember this: For employees to be covered under the FMLA for their own "serious health condition," they must be undergoing medical care or continuing treatment at the time of their request.

Just because an employee has symptoms that eventually lead to a qualifying serious condition, that won't be enough to earn him protection under the law.

Recent case: A truck driver was fired for excessive absenteeism. The driver blamed his repeated absences on a shoulder injury he suffered while lifting cargo.

He later sued, saying his absences should have been covered under the FMLA because they were caused by an injury that eventually became a "serious condition."

But a district court dismissed his case, saying his shoulder injury didn't qualify as a serious condition because, at the time the driver was fired, he wasn't hospitalized, wasn't receiving treatment from his doctor and wasn't taking any medication.

Although the shoulder condition ultimately led to disabling surgery, the treatment didn't occur until weeks after his termination. (Merritt v. E.F. Transit Inc., No. IP 02-0393-C, S.D. Ind., March 11, 2004)

For more advice on this topic, access our free Monthly Mentor report, FMLA: How to Define a 'Serious Health Condition,' at

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