Refusing reinstatement after FMLA? Get your story straight

Employees who take FMLA leave are entitled to return to their same jobs (or substantially equal ones) after leave ends.

But what happens if employees can’t return to their same jobs because they aren’t completely well or able to do the same duties they did before? If they can’t perform the essential functions of their jobs as the leave ends, so does your organization’s obligation to reinstate the workers.

But don’t jump the gun. Courts are becoming more critical of employers that try to claim that the employee can’t return. They’re becoming less likely to hand a victory to employers on summary judgment; they’re more often leaving those decisions to juries.

That means if you plan to block reinstatement for a worker returning from FMLA leave, you’d better have solid evidence to show that the employee couldn’t return to those essential functions.

Recent case: Daniel Carstetter worked as a maintenance mechanic for the transit authorities in Adams and York counties. He had multiple health problems, including diabetes, sleep apnea, depression and anxiety.

He didn’t pass a medical exam required by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to drive commercial vehicles. However, most of his job didn’t involve driving, and he didn’t think driving was essential to the job.

The employer said he had to pass or he would lose his job. So he asked for FMLA leave in order to get his health conditions under control. He was allowed to take temporary disability leave and also applied for unemployment compensation to cover the difference in pay. His employer fired him as soon as it got the application, telling him it believed he had quit.

Carstetter sued, alleging that he had been denied reinstatement. The court said a jury should decide whether he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job. (Carstetter v. Adams County Transit Authority, et al., No. 1:06-CV-1993, MD PA, 2008)