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Court Says Returning to Work After Family Leave Sometimes Not Guaranteed

Court Says Returning to Work After Family Leave Sometimes Not Guaranteed
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Naomi Thalenberg

Naomi is a reporter for TINYpulse, living and breathing everything employee engagement. She does this by always keeping her workstation fully stocked with dark chocolates.

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The purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is to offer employees who need time off from work for family or medical needs the assurance that their jobs will be there when they return, along with their insurance. Now a court has said that this may not be true if an FMLA medical leave is based on mental illness.

The ruling comes from the U.S Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. The court ruled that a company can fire an on-leave employee for poor performance even when it was a result of the illness that caused the employee to take the medical leave. The court also said that the employee isn’t entitled to come back to work if the company can prove that they’d already planned to fire the employee prior to the medical leave.

The case being argued concerned Cheryl Gabriel, a medical assistant for Colorado Mountain Medical (CMM), who — sometimes arriving at CMM immediately after working 24-hour shifts at a second job — began experiencing anxiety attacks in 2012. After two weeks of FMLA leave in December 2012, she returned to work in January 2013. She said she told others she’d acquired a gun and felt suicidal. In February 2013, CMM told Gabriel her work was unsatisfactory and directed her to take a medical leave. CMM fired her, blaming her performance, her refusal to stop working 24-hour shifts at her other job, and her gun.

The court ruled:

The issue, however, is not whether Ms. Gabriel was mentally fit for work, but instead whether CMM’s decision to terminate her employment was based on her taking FMLA leave. Even if Ms. Gabriel had recovered from her mental-health problems, the FMLA does not prohibit CMM from terminating her for the work deficiencies that resulted from those problems.

The requirement for a company to prove they’d intended to fire an employee prior to the taking of an FLMA leave will hopefully prevent companies from using a family or medical leave as a pretext for termination.

Naomi Thalenberg

Naomi is a reporter for TINYpulse, living and breathing everything employee engagement. She does this by always keeping her workstation fully stocked with dark chocolates.

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