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Court: FMLA Leave Must Be For Care, Not Evaluation Of Illness

When an employee refused to travel for work based on his wife's ongoing heart troubles, he did not have a valid claim for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal court has found. In this instance, the man did not actually provide any care and his company could not have known he was attempting to make an FMLA claim.

The relevant part of the FMLA guarantees covered workers up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid, job-protected leave for the purpose of caring for their own serious health condition or that of a family member.

In this case, the plaintiff was employed as a manager for U.S. Steel Corp. One of the people he managed was frequently absent, and this was causing dissatisfaction for Nissan, a customer. At one point, U.S. Steel ordered the plaintiff to travel immediately to a Nissan plant in Mississippi in order to address the issue.

The plaintiff refused, citing his wife's heart condition and the fact that she had said she was not feeling well. He said he needed to return home immediately to evaluate her condition. However, his wife's condition was, thankfully, not urgent. She finished her workday and drove home on her own. Indeed, when the plaintiff returned home, he determined she did not require medical attention. He returned to work the next day.

U.S. Steel fired the man for insubordination. The man sued, claiming the company had interfered with his rightful FMLA claim and retaliated against him for taking it.

Does checking on a sick person constitute care?

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan turned aside the plaintiff's claims on summary judgment, meaning with no need for a trial.

It reasoned that the FMLA provides leave for the care, not the evaluation, of a sick family member. Here, there was no evidence that the man had provided any care.

There is a chance the man's FMLA claim might still have been valid if he had provided adequate notice that he meant to take FMLA leave. However, the court found that he had not done so.

Moreover, the FMLA does not specifically require accommodations to care for a family member's disability. Therefore, U.S. Steel had no duty to modify his job requirements.

Employers who receive a sudden request for time off should be careful to evaluate whether the time is meant as FMLA leave, or if it could be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Before you deny any leave request, consider discussing the issues with an experienced employment law attorney.

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