Employer Has Separate Obligations Under Workers’ Compensation and FMLA

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has ruled, in Ramji vs. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, that complying with the state’s workers’ compensation laws does not absolve an employer from its separate obligations under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

Facts. An employee was injured on the job and was allowed to take limited leave to recover from the injury. Following that, she was placed on limited duty and then given an “essential function test” to determine if she could return to her regular, full-time job. When she could not pass the test, she was terminated.

The employer never advised the employee of her rights under the FMLA or gave her an opportunity to take twelve uninterrupted weeks of leave for rehabilitation, even though the FMLA entitled her to that relief. The employee then sued the employer claiming interference with her FMLA rights. 

The employer responded that the employee was compensated under workers’ compensation rules for the excused days of work, and since she was expected to return to work after that leave, it had no reason to believe she needed FMLA leave for that period, especially since she did not request FMLA leave. It therefore requested that the court to dismiss the case.

Law. FMLA allows FMLA-eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks’ leave for family and medical reasons, such as a serious health condition, without the risk of losing employment. Under FMLA, an employer may require an employee to follow its customary practices for requesting leave. 

While an employee may directly request FMLA leave, if an employer becomes aware of circumstances indicating that the FMLA might apply, it becomes the employer’s responsibility, not the employee’s, to determine whether a leave request is likely to be covered by the FMLA.

Appeals Court. The Eleventh Circuit first ruled that the employer obviously had sufficient knowledge (as indicated by the workers’ compensation payment, the assignment to part-time duty and its termination of the employee) that the employee might be eligible for FMLA leave. It then said the employer cannot exempt itself from its FMLA notice obligations by offering the employee paid workers’ compensation or other paid leave. 

The court also noted that the employee’s acceptance of a light-duty position did not, by itself, relieve the employer of its FMLA obligations.  The FMLA regulations unambiguously prohibit precisely this employer conduct: “If FMLA entitles an employee to leave, an employer may not, in lieu of FMLA leave entitlement, require an employee to take a job with a reasonable accommodation.”

The Eleventh Circuit proceeded to rule that the employee never had the opportunity to decide between taking a limited-duty position or taking unpaid FMLA leave. The court concluded that the employer made that choice for her by offering only a limited-duty assignment.

Because the employer did not give the employee any FMLA notice whatsoever, the court concluded that it did not satisfy its FMLA notice obligations. It should have advised the employee of her right to take FMLA leave.  The court further observed that, had the employer done so, the employee could have used that information to: (1) make informed decisions about her health care with the knowledge that her job would be protected; (2) receive additional physical therapy and medical treatment for her injury; and (3) return to work after further treatment.

The court therefore allowed the employee’s lawsuit to continue.