Follow Us on

Employer Wins in ADA/FMLA Confusion



By Gina Helou

A teacher suffered from neck and back pain for several years during her employment with an elementary school.  Eventually, the teacher underwent surgery in an attempt to alleviate both the neck and back issues, and subsequently took FMLA leave from the elementary school to recover.  As an employer should do, the elementary school stayed in touch with the teacher to find out when she planned to return to her teaching position.  Later the elementary school requested the teacher provide an official return-to-work date.  In response, the teacher  explained she had a doctor’s appointment coming up and would let the elementary school know after the appointment.  The elementary school immediately sent a letter advising the teacher her FMLA leave would soon expire and again requested a return-to-work date.  The teacher again responded she had a doctor’s appointment coming up and would provide the information after her appointment.

Before the doctor’s appointment and less than two weeks after sending the letter, the elementary school sent another letter to the teacher advising her it was terminating her employment because her FMLA leave had expired and she had not returned to work.  The teacher then sued the elementary school, alleging violations of the ADA and the FMLA, among other claims.  After the trial court dismissed all of her claims, the teacher appealed to the Fifth Circuit, primarily focusing on her ADA claims.  The Fifth Circuit upheld the trial court’s dismissal of all claims.

Legal analysis
Under the ADA, the teacher was required to show she had a disability that “substantially limits a major life activity.”  The teacher then had to show her employer terminated her because of this disability, therefore discriminating against her.  Here, the court found substantial evidence and examples the employee was not terminated because of her disability, but rather for exhausting her FMLA leave without returning to work. The court was particularly impressed by the elementary school’s efforts to comply with the FMLA, which the teacher ignored by failing to provide a return-to-work date or medical documentation from her doctor regarding her recovery.  Based on this evidence, the court found the teacher’s disability was not a factor in the elementary school’s decision to terminate her employment, and the trial court’s decision to dismiss her claims was upheld.

This case exemplifies an issue employers face when an employee is on FMLA leave with a condition that is both an FMLA-accepted serious health condition and a significant impairment falling under the protection of the ADA.  In this case, the elementary school’s diligence and written record documenting attempts to follow up and receive information from the employee led to its ultimate success in litigation of the FMLA and ADA claims.  It is essential for employers to follow these laws to the letter and to always document communication with employees.


Add comment

Security code