New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

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A recent decision by the New Jersey District Court addressed important issues regarding retaliation following an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation and time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

Supermarket CartsIn Boles v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., plaintiff Barry Boles worked for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. for approximately ten years. As a result of a medical condition, his physician signed him out of work for approximately five months, which included several extensions of leave. Wal-Mart retroactively approved his FMLA leave (12 weeks), and designated his remaining time off as personal leave. The plaintiff claimed he did not receive documentation regarding how his leave was allocated or indicating he could be fired if he failed to return to work following his FMLA leave. Within three days after Boles returned to work, Wal-Mart terminated him for failure to return to work following his approved leave.

The plaintiff had received a performance warning approximately two weeks prior to taking leave. Shortly thereafter, Wal-Mart claimed that on one occasion prior to his leave he failed to complete certain overnight job responsibilities and to notify his supervisors that he was leaving early.

The plaintiff brought claims for (1) retaliation for seeking an extension of medical leave in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”); (2) disability discrimination under the LAD; (3) failure to reasonably accommodate his disability under the LAD; and (4) interference with his FMLA rights.

Reasonable Accommodation

Regarding the reasonable accommodation claims, Wal-Mart argued the plaintiff could not meet his burden of proof because “taking medical leave does not constitute protected activity that would support a retaliation claim under the NJLAD.” The Court rejected this argument and held that the LAD’s anti-retaliation provision includes as “protected activity” requesting and taking medical leave. As a result, employers found to have retaliated against employees for requesting or taking medical leave can be liable. The Court also found there was sufficient evidence to support the plaintiff’s claim that his discharge was motivated by Wal-Mart’s resentment toward his request for leave. In so concluding, the Court relied on (1) an email his direct supervisor sent to his own supervisor about discharging the plaintiff during his FMLA leave; and (2) the fact that Wal-Mart discharged the plaintiff only three days after he returned to work.

The Court, however, held that because the plaintiff had received a warning indicating unsatisfactory work performance, left work without notifying his supervisors, and failed to complete certain overnight work, he could not meet the necessary initial showing for a disability discrimination case. In particular, the Court concluded that the plaintiff was not meeting his employer’s reasonable expectations regarding his work performance. Surprisingly, the Court also held the plaintiff did not request a reasonable accommodation when he provided a physician’s certification indicating he needed leave beyond the date he originally requested. The Court found the plaintiff did not directly request additional leave from his employer, but rather merely submitted a certification from his physician indicating a later return to work date. The Court found these facts could not maintain a claim for a failure to accommodate a disability. The Court then granted summary judgment to Wal-Mart in these respects.

FMLA Interference

The Court stated it was unclear whether Wal-Mart provided the plaintiff adequate notice that he was eligible for FMLA leave or sufficient information regarding the expiration of his FMLA leave. The Court found that the plaintiff may have been prejudiced by the company’s failure to provide adequate notice since he may have made alternative plans if he understood he could be fired if he did not return to work prior to the expiration of his approved leave. As a result, the Court denied Wal-Mart summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s claim of interference with his FMLA rights.

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The City of New York recently passed the Earned Sick Leave Act, a new law that will require employers in New York City to provide employees a minimum amount of sick leave per year. Specifically, employers will have to provide at least 1 hour of sick time for every 30 hours an employee works, with a maximum requirement of 40 hours of sick time to an employee each year. It only applies to employees, not independent contractors. It does not apply to professional employees, even if they are paid by the hour.

Initially, employers with more than 20 employees must pay employees during the required sick leave. Eventually, that requirement will apply to companies with at least 15 employees. Smaller employers will only be required to provide unpaid sick leave. Companies will be permitted to count paid time off, such as paid vacation, personal days or days of rest, toward the required paid sick time, and can count other paid or unpaid time off toward the required unpaid sick time.

Sick Leave Law in NYC.jpgNew York City employees will be entitled to use their sick leave time for their own mental or physical illness, injury, medical diagnosis, or preventive medical care; or to care for a family member who needs care or treatment for a mental or physical illness, injury or health condition, a medical diagnosis, or preventive medical care. The law defines family members to include the employee’s child, parent, spouse, domestic partner, or the child or parent of the employee’s spouse or domestic partner. Employees also will be able to use sick leave if their workplace or their child’s school or childcare provider is closed by a public official due to a public health emergency.

The new law indicates that employees can carry over sick time that they did not use in one year to the next, unless the company decides to pay them for their unused time. Companies are not obligated to let employees use more than 40 hours of sick time in a single year. But employers are not required to pay employees for their unused sick time, even when the company lays them off or fires them.

The Act includes an anti-retaliation provision which prohibits employers from threatening, disciplining, firing, demoting, suspending, reduction hours, or taking any other adverse employment action against any employee because he exercised (or attempted to exercise) his rights under the law. Importantly, it requires employees who want to bring a legal claim to file a complaint with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs within 270 days after he knew or should have known about a violation. The law also includes provisions to protect the identity of individuals who bring claims under it, presumably out of concerns for workplace privacy.

The Earned Sick Leave Act will not begin to go into effect until April 1, 2014, at the earliest, and will be fully in effect by October 2016, at the latest. Once the law goes into effect, employees will begin to earn sick time. However, companies do not have to allow employees to use their sick time for 120 after it goes into effect. Similarly, companies do not have to permit employees to begin using this sick leave until 120 after they begin their job.

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The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled that an employer violated the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by requiring an employee to provide a new doctor’s note each time he took time off as part of an intermittent family leave. The FMLA permits a qualified employee to take time off to care for his immediate family member who has a serious health condition. When medically necessary, an employee can take an FMLA leave intermittently, meaning he can take hours or days off when necessary instead of taking the leave all at once.

Mother Taking Temperature Sick Child.jpgRalph West worked as a Corrections Officer for Burlington County. Officer West also was a member of the Policeman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) Local #249 Union. Under its collective bargaining agreement with the PBA, if the County suspects an employee of abusing sick leave it can require him to submit proof of illness. If an employee fails to submit proof within 7 days, the County can require the employee to forfeit his salary during the sick leave and/or discipline him.

Officer West’s son has sickle cell disease. As a result, he sometimes experiences serious health problems including strokes. On March 3, 2010, Officer West requested a family leave under the FMLA to care for his son. The County approved his leave as an intermittent FMLA leave from March 3, 2010 through December 31, 2010.

On May 2, 2010, Officer West’s son woke up jaundiced and in pain. Officer West took the day off to care for his son as part of his intermittent FMLA leave. The next day, his supervisor told him he had to submit proof his son was ill on May 2. Officer West was unable to submit a doctor’s note because he had not taken his son to the doctor, and the doctor was unwilling to write a note because he had not seen his son. As a result, the County docked Officer West’s pay for May 2 and told him he had to submit proof of illness each time he took time off as part of his intermittent family leave. Similarly, the County suspended Officer West for two days when he again called out sick to care for his son on August 15, 2010 without submitting a doctor’s note.

In Police Benevolent Association Local No. 249 v. County of Burlington, the Appellate Division ruled that the County’s policy requiring Officer West to submit a doctor’s note each time he took time off as part of his intermittent family leave violated the FMLA because it interfered with his rights under the FMLA. The Court found this was especially true since there was no evidence Officer West ever abused his intermittent family leave. In doing so, the Court distinguished another case that found a company did not violate the FMLA by requiring employees to call in each day they are out for a medical leave, since it is much easier to call than it is to submit a doctor’s note each time you need to take a day off under the FMLA. In other words, although an employer can impose requirements on employees who take FMLA leaves, those requirements violate the FMLA if they are onerous.

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Last month, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) clarified when a qualified employee can take a leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for an adult child. As the Interpretation explains, the FMLA permits eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks off from work to care for a son or daughter who has a serious health condition. The FMLA defines a “son or daughter” to include a biological, adopted, or foster child, as well as a stepchild or legal ward. It applies to all children who are under 18 years old. It also applies to children who are at least 18 years old, but only if the child (1) has a disability; (2) is incapable of caring for him or herself due to the disability; (3) has a serious health condition; and (4) needs a parent to care for him because of the serious health condition.

1. The Adult Child Has a Disability

Employee need FMLA leave for adult child.jpgThe DOL explained that the first requirement for qualified employees to take an FMLA leave to care for their adult child is the child must have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Fortunately, the FMLA adopts the ADA’s relatively new and much broader definition under the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act (ADAAA). That definition includes any physical or mental condition that substantially impairs a major life activity. Major life activities include the ability to care for yourself, perform manual tasks, see, hear, eat, sleep, walk, stand, lift, bend, speak, breath, learn, read, concentrate, think, communicate, or work. As long as it substantially limits a major life activity, a disability can include a pregnancy-related condition or a condition that is episodic or in remission.

2. The Adult Child is Incapable of Self-Care

The second requirement for the FMLA to cover an adult child is the child must be unable to care for him or herself due to the disability. As the DOL explained, this means the son or daughter needs daily assistance or supervision to care for at least three “activities of daily living” or “instrumental activities of daily living.” Activities of daily living include grooming and hygiene, bathing, dressing, and eating. Instrumental activities of daily living include cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking public transportation, paying bills, maintaining a residence, using telephones, or using the post office.

3. The Adult Child Has a Serious Health Condition

The third requirement is that the adult son or daughter has a serious health condition. This means the adult child must have an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves either inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. As the DOL’s Interpretation recognizes, although the FMLA’s definition of a serious health condition is different from the ADA’s definition of a disability, many conditions are both a serious health condition and a disability.
4. The Parent Needs to Care for the Adult Child Due to the Serious Health Condition

The final requirement for a qualified employee to be entitled to an FMLA leave to care for an adult child is the adult child must need the parent’s care because of the serious health condition. This includes situations in which the parent needs to care for an adult son or daughter who is “unable to care for his or her own basic medical, hygienic, or nutritional needs or safety, or is unable to transport himself or herself to the doctor” due to a serious health condition. It also includes situations in which a parent needs to provide psychological comfort or reassurance to an adult child who has a serious health condition while receiving inpatient or home care.

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Earlier this month, in Lichtenstein v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals answered several important questions under the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). The FMLA is a federal law that requires larger companies to allow qualified employees to take time off for pregnancy, their own serious health condition, or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. The Third Circuit is the federal appellate court that handles appeals from federal court in New Jersey.

What is Enough Information to Request an FMLA Leave?

Employee takes FMLA leave at hospital emergency room.jpgOne issue the court clarified is what an employee is required to say to request an FMLA leave. It ruled that an employee only has to provide the employer enough information for the company to determine that the FLMA might apply. At that point, if the employer needs more information to determine whether the FMLA actually applies, it has to ask the employee. Applying that rule, the court found Jamie Lichtenstein had requested an FMLA leave when she told her employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), that (1) her mother was in the emergency room, (2) her mother had been brought to the hospital by ambulance, and (3) she would not be able to work that day. The court ruled that although this was not necessarily enough information for UPMC to determine whether Ms. Lichtenstein was entitled to an FMLA leave, it was enough information that UMPC had to at least ask her for more information.

What Does it Mean to “Care For” a Family Member?

The court also clarified what it means to “care for” a family member with a serious health condition. It explained that “caring” not only includes providing physical care, but also “psychological comfort and reassurance,” to a family member with a serious health condition. The court concluded that a jury could find UPMC should have understood the reason Ms. Lichtenstein was at the hospital with her mother was to provide her emotional comfort and reassurance, and therefore was a request for an FMLA leave.

How Can You Prove Your Employer Retaliated Against You For Requesting an FMLA Leave?

The court also discussed how an employee can prove that the decision to fire her was based on her request for an FMLA leave. First, it explained that that an employee can prove this based solely on evidence of the timing between her request for an FMLA leave and the company’s decision to fire her, but only if the timing is “unusually suggestive.” Since UPMC fired Ms. Lichtenstein within a week after she requested an FMLA leave, the court found that alone could be enough for a jury to find in her favor.

Second, the court explained that even when the timing is not enough by itself to prove the employer fired the employee because she took an FMLA leave, the employee can use other evidence to prove her claim. For example, Ms. Lichtenstein could use the fact that the company stated that her absence on the day when she was at the hospital with her mother was one of the reasons it fired her. She also could use the fact that her supervisor initially claimed she made the decision to fire Ms. Lichtenstein before she requested an FMLA leave, but later testified that she could not remember when she made the decision.

Notably, the court ruled that Ms. Lichtenstein can proceed with her FMLA claim even though she admittedly had numerous unexcused absences and was repeatedly late to work before she ever requested an FMLA leave. It explained that the company had every right to fire her for those reasons. However, it is illegal to consider an employee’s FMLA leave as a “negative factor” in a decision to fire an employee, even if there are other factors that led to the decision. Since there is evidence suggesting that Ms. Lichtenstein’s FMLA leave could have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the court ruled that a jury must decide whether UPMC used her FMLA as a negative factor in its decision to fire her.

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Q. What are my rights when I am ready to return to work from an FMLA leave?

A. Generally, if you seek to return to work at the end of your Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave, your employer must reinstate you to your job, or an equivalent job in terms of duties, compensation, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.
It is important to note that normally an employee loses this protection if he or she takes more than 12 weeks off. However, as discussed in a recent article, under certain limited circumstances the FMLA Can Protect an Employee Who Took a Medical Leave for More Than 12 Weeks.

Q. Does my company always have to return me to my job after my FMLA leave?

A. Although employers usually have to reinstate you to your job or an equivalent one at the end of your FMLA leave, there are several exceptions. First, a company does not have to reinstate you if it had a mass layoff or reduction in force while you were on your FMLA leave, and it can prove it would have laid you off even if you had not taken an FMLA leave.

Second, if you are a “key employee,” then your employer might be able to refuse to reinstate you if it can show it will experience a “substantial” and “grievous” economic injury to its business if it did so. The FMLA defines key employees to be employees whose salaries are in the highest 10% of the company’s employees within 75 miles of your worksite.

Q. What damages can I recover in a case under the FMLA?

Thumbnail image for Money Damages Gavel.jpgA. An employee who wins a lawsuit under the FMLA can recover his or her lost wages and benefits. In some circumstances, you also can recover double damages (called liquidated damages) equal to your lost wages and benefits. In addition, you can recover your attorney’s fees and legal costs.

However, the FMLA does not allow you to recover damages for emotional distress or pain and suffering you have experienced. It also does not permit you to recover punitive damages.

Q. My company is violating my right under the FMLA. What can I do?

It is illegal for your employer to refuse to permit you to take time off that you are entitled to under the FMLA. Likewise, it is usually illegal for a company to fire you instead of letting you return to work after your FMLA leave, or to retaliate against you because you requested or took an FMLA leave.

For more information about the FMLA, please refer to our previous Frequently Asked Questions about FMLA Basics, Types of FMLA Leaves, and Requesting an FMLA Leave.

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Q. How do I request an FMLA leave?

A. Under the Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), you have to provide your employer at least enough information that it is aware you need time off for a reason that is covered by the FMLA. You also need to indicate when you expect to need the time off, and how much time off you expect you will need.

Your employer can require you to follow a specific procedure after you request an FMLA leave, such as having you or your doctor fill out a particular form.

Q. How much advance notice do I need to give my employer before I start my FMLA leave?

A. When practical, you are required to give your employer at least 30 day notice before you take an FMLA leave. For example, you ordinarily must give your employer at least 30 days’ notice if you expect to take time off for childbirth, the placement of a child for adoption or foster care, or for a scheduled medical treatment.

However, sometimes it is impossible or impractical to give 30 days’ notice before you need to take an FMLA leave. When that is the case, you only have to give as much notice as is reasonable under the circumstances. For example, if you have an unexpected medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, then you might not be required to give your employer any notice before you begin your FMLA leave. However, you still have to tell your employer that you need time off as soon as it is feasible for you to do so.

Q. Do I need a doctor’s note or a medical certification to take an FMLA leave?

Doctor writing note for FMLA leave.jpgA. Only if your employer requests it. Your employer has the right to request a medical certification supporting your request for time off under the FMLA. If your employer makes such a request, then you have to provide the certification within 15 calendar days, unless it is not practical to do so under the circumstances.

Q. Can my employer request a second medical opinion?

A. Yes. If your employer has reason to doubt your doctor’s medical certification, it can send you for a second opinion. Your employer has to pay for this second opinion.

Last month, we answered Frequently Asked Questions about FMLA Basics, and How to Request an FMLA Leave. Next week, we will answer Frequently Asked Questions about Reinstatement and Remedies under the FMLA.

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Q. What types of medical leaves are protected under the FMLA?

A. Covered employees can take medical leaves for a “serious health condition.” The definition of a serious health condition is complicated, but it includes most conditions that either:

  1. Require an overnight hospital stay, or
  2. Last more than three days, and (a) require more than one doctor’s visit, (b) require at least one doctor’s visit and continuing treatment such as physical therapy or prescription medication, or (c) are chronic, and involve extended periods of incapacity or treatment.

Q. What types of family leaves are protected under the FMLA?

pregnant woman requesting maternity leave.jpgA. The Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) allows eligible employees to take time off to care for an immediate family member who has a serious health condition. Depending on the circumstances, this can include helping take an immediate family member to a doctor’s appointment, helping care for them at home, or providing them comfort and support needed because of their serious health condition.

Q. Who is considered an “immediate family member” under the FMLA?

A. An immediate family member means your spouse, parent, or child.

Q. Does the FMLA give me the right to take time off while I am pregnant?

A. Expecting mothers can take time off if they have a pregnancy-related condition or complication that meets the FMLA’s definition of a serious health condition.

Q. What types of maternity and paternity leave are available under the FMLA?

A. New parents can take a maternity or paternity leave to bond with their new child during the first 12 months after birth or adoption of a child, or for the placement of a foster child.

Q. Do I have to take all of my FMLA leave at the same time?

A. Not necessarily. Under certain circumstances you can take an FMLA leave “intermittently” or on a “reduced leave schedule.” An intermittent FMLA leave is when you take off blocks of time. A reduced leave schedule is when you use the FMLA to reduce the number of hours you work per week or per day, such as taking time off for doctors’ appointments or physical therapy.

Last week, we answered Frequently Asked Questions about FMLA Basics. Next month, we will discuss Frequently Asked Questions about Requesting an FMLA Leave, and Reinstatement and Remedies under the FMLA.

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Q. What is the Family & Medical Leave Act?

A. The Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a federal law that allows covered employees to take protected time off for certain family and medical leaves.

Q. Which employees are protected by the FMLA?

mature businessman FMLA medical leave.jpgA. To be protected by the FMLA, an employee must have (1) worked for the same covered employer for the past 12 months, (2) worked at least 1,250 hours (an average of 25 hours per week over 50 weeks) for that company over the previous 12 months, and (3) worked in a location where there are at least 50 employees working for the employer within 75 miles.

Q. Which employers are covered by the FMLA?

A. States, and most companies and government agencies with at least 50 employees are covered by the FMLA. However, government agencies and States Cannot Be Sued for Violations of FMLA Relating to Self Care Medical Leaves. They can be sued only for violations relating to family leaves.

Q. How much time off am I entitled to take under the FMLA?

A. Eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks off in a 12 month period for a qualifying medical leave, family leave, or maternity/paternity leave.

Q. Am I protected under the FMLA if I am not planning to return to work after my leave?

A. No. If you tell your employer that you do not plan to return to work at the end of your FMLA leave, then your employer is not required to grant you an FMLA leave. Accordingly, your employer has the right to periodically ask you if and when you expect to return to work.

Q. Will I Continue to Receive Health Insurance From My Company During My FMLA Leave?

A. Yes. Your company must continue your coverage under any group health plan during your FMLA leave, with the same conditions that would have applied if you had not taken the leave.

In our next article, we will answer Frequently Asked Questions about What Types of FMLA Leaves are available under the FMLA. In future articles, we will discuss How to Request an FMLA Leave, and the right to Reinstatement and Legal Remedies available under the FMLA.

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Sick Business Woman.jpgLast month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the “self-care” provisions of the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) cannot be enforced against a state, unless the state consents to being sued under the FMLA. The FMLA is a federal law that guarantees eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks off per year due to their own serious health condition (medical leaves), or due to a serious health condition of their spouse, parent, or child (family leaves). Under the Supreme Court’s decision, the FMLA’s family leave provisions still apply to states. However, the FMLA no longer requires states to permit their employees to take time off for their own medical conditions.

The basis for the Supreme Court’s decision is the 11th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declares the states to be sovereign, and limits the federal government’s right to create laws under which states can be sued. The 14th Amendment, which forbids the states from denying equal protection of the law to anyone, provides a limited exception to the States’ sovereign immunity. In the context of federal laws like the FMLA, which are intended to protect against gender discrimination, that exception only applies if the law is intended to correct a well-documented pattern of gender discrimination.

In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the Supreme Court recognized that when Congress passed the FMLA, it had strong evidence that states were discriminating against women based on sex with respect to their family-leave policies. It therefore had previously recognized that the FMLA’s family-leave provisions do apply to states. However, Coleman concludes that Congress did not have enough evidence of gender discrimination with respect to medical leaves for an employee’s own serious health to justify applying those provisions of the FMLA to states. It reached this conclusion even though Congress apparently intended the FMLA’s medical leave provisions to protect women with pregnancy-related illnesses, but in a way that did not discriminate against men by protecting all medical leaves, and not just leaves for pregnancy-related conditions.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not merely mean that the FMLA’s self-care provisions are unenforceable against states like New Jersey and New York. It also applies to subdivisions of the state, such as towns, cities, boroughs, villages, and other municipalities. It also applies to and municipal police departments, fire department, schools districts, and other state and local government entities. However, it does not eliminate protections against pregnancy or disability discrimination committed by state and local government provided by other laws such as the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), New Jersey’s Family Leave Act (NJFLA), the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

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