We’ve all read or heard about the unbelievable stories of employees who abuse and misuse the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Take for instance the California employee who used their FMLA leave for a fishing trip, then was caught on their co-worker's Facebook live video! It's these cases that leave you wondering, "why would anyone do such a thing?" These cases of misuse aren't entirely limited to employees, employers are guilty of abusing or denying FMLA and ADA as well.
Many of you already know that qualifying reasons for FMLA leave include parental leave (for birth or adoption), medical leave to care for a family member who has a serious illness, an employee’s own serious medical condition, pregnancy leave and military leave. A fishing trip is definitely not one of them!
Let’s take a look at some of the craziest FMLA and ADA cases we’ve come across!
Case #1: Employee Takes Excessive Trips to the Bathroom
We’re not pulling your leg with this case - Akerson v. Pritzker actually went to court! To set the scene, an employee takes trips as often as every 20 minutes to the bathroom because she suffers from the medical condition interstitial cystitis, which is an inflammatory bladder condition.
Her supervisor called her at her desk, purposefully, while she was in the bathroom, despite being able to see her desk from his work area. When she wouldn’t answer, her employer would send someone to go look for her (in the bathroom, nonetheless). Eventually, the employee’s condition worsened, so she took a short leave of absence, and upon her return found no desk and different duties assigned to her! After a short stint, she was terminated. The court ended up siding with the employee, finding that her employer discriminated against her.
Even though this case is more closely related to the ADA, the employer could have granted the employee with intermittent FMLA leave. Why? Because the employee’s trips to the bathroom were medically required.
This case is of course very different from an employee who simply takes too many trips to the washroom “just because,” a scenario that’s more likely what employers tend to deal with.
If an employee is away from their desk, every 20-30 minutes and they don’t have a medical reason for doing so, that is definitely unreasonable! If you’re an employer dealing with this issue, the best way to go about it is to focus on the employee’s performance. If their performance is decreasing because they’re taking far too many bathroom breaks, consider having a discussion with them regarding expectations and performance (just don’t be a potty mouth while doing so).
Case #2: Employee Sleeps on the Job; Claims Employer Should've Provided Accommodation
George Hirmiz worked as a front desk clerk for a hotel and was actually caught on tape sleeping on the job (in the hotel lobby to be precise). Even worse, while he was asleep, a fight ensued amongst the hotel guests! His employer of course terminated him, however, he decided to sue them for disability discrimination, claiming he had an illness from being exposed to high levels of electromagnetic voltage while working.
This is not what a disability discrimination actually looks like. An example of disability discrimination would be when an employer dismisses an employee for their disability-related absences. A “sensitivity to electromagnetic voltage” is most likely not protected under the ADA. As stated by the court, “there is debate in the medical community over whether sensitivity to electromagnetic voltage is a physical disorder or a psychological one… And indeed the district court found that Hirmiz had provided no evidence - medical or otherwise - that he suffers from any ‘impairment’ that ‘substantially limits’ any of his ‘major life activities,’ as required to prove the existence of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The main takeaway for employers here is that if an employee has a not-so-obvious medical issue (i.e. phobia, cancer), employers are within their rights to request that the employee provide medical certification/documentation regarding their disability.
Case #3: Employee Requests FMLA Leave...to Visit Parents
While there are numerous reasons an employee may require FMLA, requesting this type of leave to visit your parents because they’re “old” is not one of them. This is actually what Biljana Pivac, a warehouse clerk, did. Pivic had used up her personal and vacation time, and also had attendance issues. She then proceeded to request FMLA leave to visit her parents because they’re old.
Instead of simply shutting down Pivic’s request completely, the HR director suggested that she could request FMLA leave for the stress she was experiencing (provided she supplied the appropriate medical certifications). The employee went for a doctor’s appointment, however, she was not supplied with any treatments, referrals, medicine or follow-up appointments. The doctor did however give her a two-week “medically excused absence” form. Unfortunately the employee didn’t supply any FMLA paperwork for her organization, yet still took the time off. Her employer’s reaction? You guessed it, she was terminated.
The employee decided to sue her employer for FMLA interference and retaliation (Biljana Pivac v. Component Services & Logistics, Inc.). The court, not surprisingly, sided with the employer, stating, “there is absolutely no evidence presented by the Plaintiff that she met the definition of ‘serious medical condition’ at the time she took the extended unpaid leave. There are no medical records submitted, no indication of continuing treatment at the time of the Plaintiff’s being out of work…” Clearly, the moral of the story here is that you need a qualifying reason to take FMLA leave.
As absurd and bizarre as these cases may be, it’s not uncommon for employers and even employees to not fully understand the FMLA and ADA. With amendments made to these laws and a whole host of state and local laws that can interact with them, it can be difficult to keep up! That’s where a leave law reference guide like Leave Genius comes in, helping you remain compliant and up to date with the latest leave laws!