Family Medical Leave Act

Employers are often surprised to learn that employees may be terminated while on (or after) Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other type of protected leave. The key, however, is that there needs to be some sort of unrelated intervening event such as in the case of Naguib v. Trimark Hotel Corp. On September 12, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota’s decision in Trimark, that an employee was not wrongfully terminated while on Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protected leave.

In this case, the plaintiff, Isis Naguib, was a long-time (1977-2014) Executive Housekeeper at Millennium Hotel, a Trimark brand hotel. During the past three years of her employment, Naguib essentially testified against the company in an unrelated case, her son filed a discrimination complaint against the hotel, and she took FMLA leave for hypertension. While the FMLA request was approved, she was suspended and terminated soon after her return, as a result of an internal investigation.

While Naguib was on FMLA leave, the fill-in Head of Housekeeping personally observed timekeeping irregularities, and notified management. Notably, it was determined that Naguib told housekeepers to round down their time and not record all overtime hours and Naguib altered time records without the proper company form. In addition, one housekeeper regularly sewed hotel linens at home off the clock. This practice resulted in lower payroll costs, and thus, a bonus for Naguib. Ultimately, Millennium compensated the employees for the docked overtime, disciplined three other managers (who did similar practices on a smaller scale), and terminated Naguib just twelve days after her return from FMLA. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the District of Minnesota (the Honorable Judge Joan N. Ericksen) in its ruling that there were no specific links between her termination any any sort of discrimination, and that the investigation was only conducted as a result of irregularities found in her absence. Thus, the termination proper despite the other recent events.

According to Donate Life America, every 10 minutes another person is added to the waiting list for an organ. Twenty-two (22) people die each day waiting, and yet one organ/eye/tissue donor can save and heal more than 75 lives. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, 114,370 people are currently waiting for a lifesaving transplant; in Minnesota, there are 3,155 people waiting (62 under the age or 18). While many may “check the box” when obtaining/renewing a drivers’ license, few think about making a living donation (approximately 6,000 per year). In Minnesota, we are fortunate to have the Gift of Life Transplant House, a place for immune-suppressed transplant patients (only) and their caregivers to stay while receiving medical treatment in Rochester. The Gift of Life Transplant House was founded in 1973 by Edward Pompeian, who then received a donated kidney, the “gift of life”, from his mother.

For those like Mr. Pompeian’s mother that decide to make a living organ donation, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has made it a little less burdensome to donate life to another. On August 28, 2018, the DOL opined in FMLA2018-2-A, that organ donation surgery is a “serious health condition” under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), so long as the individual requires overnight hospitalization (as it commonly requires) and/or post-surgery recovery. Again, the employer must be subject to the FMLA, the employee must be FMLA eligible, and the employee must present acceptable medical certification supporting the need for leave.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s August 28, 2018 Opinion Letter FMLA2018-1-A confirms that, in certain circumstances, an employer may “freeze” an employee’s attendance points during periods of Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. Attendance points are often used in a manufacturing or other settings when attendance is critical and HR needs a simple way to monitor and decide when to write up/terminate an employee. In this instance, the employer has a no-fault attendance policy whereby employees accrue attendance points over the course of 12 months “active service”, until a certain amount is hit (18 points), at which point they are automatically terminated.

Key here, is that employees do not accrue points for certain absences such as FMLA-protected, workers’ compensation, vacation, or other specified/approved leaves. However, the points collect over 12 months of “active service”, thereby freezing the points when the employee is on an approved leave. When the employee returns, their points pick up where they left off (thus, the points may be on their record for more than 12 months).

The DOL opines that such a method is acceptable under the FMLA, as the person is in no better or worse position because of taking FMLA. However, the DOL does caution that such practice is okay, so long as, “employees on equivalent types of leave receive the same treatment”. In other words, employers do need to be careful to ensure that all types of leave are treated the same and freeze the points for all approved absences (such as workers’ compensation, vacation, etc.), and may want to consider, for administrative purposes, a minimum time such as two weeks before absences freeze points.