Worker Who Left to Evaluate Spouse’s Condition Loses FMLA Claim

By Christine S. Coleman January 21, 2020
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​While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides protected leave to eligible employees so they may care for a family member with a serious health condition, it does not provide protection for employees to simply evaluate the medical condition of a family member, according to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Nor does it require an employer to provide employees reasonable accommodation other than leave or a reduced work schedule.

U.S. Steel Corp. employed the plaintiff as a manager in the customer quality engineering department. He was responsible for addressing customer issues and assigned to manage four customer quality engineers. The plaintiff, whose home was in Michigan, admitted he was aware that one Tennessee engineer he managed was frequently absent and a customer, Nissan, was not satisfied with his performance.

The plaintiff was also aware of an ongoing quality issue with steel at one of Nissan's plants. As the quality issue became urgent and the customer relationship was becoming strained, U.S. Steel instructed the plaintiff while he was onsite in Tennessee to travel immediately to the Mississippi Nissan plant to address the issues himself.

The plaintiff refused, explaining that his wife had a heart condition, at times had required hospitalization and had just informed him she was not feeling well. So, the plaintiff stated, he needed to return to Michigan at once to assess her condition.

Meanwhile, his wife finished her workday, made the hourlong drive home from work and awaited the plaintiff's arrival. Once home, he determined that his wife did not require any medical attention. He returned to work at U.S. Steel's Michigan office the following day, and his wife was able to continue her normal activities.

The plaintiff never formally requested leave or a reduced work schedule to care for his wife. U.S. Steel fired him for insubordination in declining to travel to Mississippi to address the customer issue.

He sued U.S. Steel under the FMLA for both interference and retaliation. The district court ruled in favor of U.S. Steel on its motion for summary judgment on both claims.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave (FMLA)]

The court first found that the plaintiff was not entitled to take leave under the FMLA. The court drew a distinction between providing care to a family member and evaluating a family member's condition.

While the FMLA protects employees who need leave to provide care for a family member who has a serious medical condition, the court had to consider whether evaluation would constitute providing care.

Ultimately, the court determined that the plaintiff's evaluation of his wife did not constitute providing care under the FMLA. The evidence demonstrated that he did not provide any care, within the meaning of the FMLA, to his wife, since she was able to drive herself home and continue her normal activities while he went back to work.

The court also ruled against the plaintiff because he did not provide adequate notice of any need for FMLA. Rather, he declined to travel to Mississippi but then returned to work the next day.

The court found that U.S. Steel could not be expected to understand that the plaintiff was requesting leave or a reduced work schedule under such circumstances. The court pointed out that there is no reasonable accommodation provision in the FMLA that would require an employer to modify job requirements, such as relieving an employee of travel responsibilities, for an employee dealing with the serious health condition of himself or a family member.

Schaar v. U.S. Steel Corp., E.D. Mich., No. 18-13151 (Oct. 18, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers should carefully consider requests for leave to determine whether they qualify under the FMLA. If not, employers should still consider whether leave would be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Christine S. Coleman is an attorney with McMahon Berger PC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in St. Louis.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Family and Medical Leave Act.]

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