Dangerous Intersection Between FMLA And Workers’ Comp Claims Another Victim

Workplace injuries necessitating time-off from work can implicate multiple laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); the Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”); any applicable state or local disability discrimination law, any applicable state or local workplace leave law, and a state worker’s compensation law. Some of the most common and costly mistakes by employers occur while attempting to navigate the intersections of these overlapping laws.

In Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems LLC, the employer’s mistake was treating an employee’s workplace knee injury solely as a worker’s compensation claim, and not advising the employee of her rights under the FMLA. After a few days off and a temporary light-duty assignment, the employee received medical clearance to return to her regular-duty position. Before her employer allowed her to do so, however, she first had to pass an essential-functions test. The employee did not pass the test and was discharged.

Predictably, the discharged employee filed suit for interference with her FMLA rights. In an April 6, 2021 opinion denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the Eleventh Circuit provided two lessons as to the interplay between the FMLA and workers’ compensation rights.

I. Workers’ Compensation Benefits Do Not Absolve an Employer of its FMLA Obligations

In Ramji, the employer argued that, since the employee was compensated for the time off from work under workers compensation insurance and provided a temporary light-duty assignment, the FMLA was never implicated. The Eleventh Circuit rejected these arguments.

First, the Court noted that FMLA regulations contemplate the availability of workers’ compensation benefits and specify that “the worker’s compensation absence and FMLA leave may run concurrently.” See 29 C.F.R. § 825.702(d)(2)(“An employee may be on a worker’s compensation absence due to an on-the-job injury or illness which also qualifies as a serious health condition under FMLA. The workers’ compensation absence and FMLA leave may run concurrently (subject to proper notice and designation by the employer).”).

Second, the Court noted that depriving an employee of an opportunity to accept FMLA leave in lieu of a temporary light-duty assignment is prohibited by the Act. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.702(d)(2)(“if the employer offers [a light-duty] position, the employee is permitted but not required to accept the position. As a result, the employee may no longer qualify for payments from the workers’ compensation benefit plan, but the employee is entitled to continue on unpaid FMLA leave until either the employee is able to return to the same or equivalent job the employee left or until the 12-week FMLA leave entitlement is exhausted.”)

If she had taken FMLA leave instead of returning to a light- duty position, the employee may have healed enough to pass the essential-functions test. Since the employee was never presented this option, the employer violated the FMLA.

II. A Workers’ Compensation Claim Can Be Notice of a Potentially FMLA-Qualifying Absence

In Ramji, the employer argued it was not on sufficient notice of its duty to inform the employee of her right to FMLA leave. Again, the Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument.

The court specifically found that the employer knew of the nature of the employee’s injury and her potential qualification for FMLA leave because the (1) employee’s serious injury occurred at work, and (2) the employer handled the employee’s workers’ compensation and workplace-injury forms. The Court determined it was unnecessary for the employee to expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA under such circumstances. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.301(b) and 825.303(b).

III. Takeaway For Employers

Navigating the multiple laws stemming from a workplace injury can be quite challenging for an employer. Thoughtful decision-making is necessary to avoid a mistake which results in costly litigation. For complex scenarios, consultation with legal counsel is always a prudent consideration.

Robert G. Chadwick, Jr. frequently speaks to employers and non-profit organizations regarding labor & employment issues. To contact him for a speaking engagement please e-mail him at rchadwick@realclearcounsel.com.

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