Chemical Plant Worker Can Proceed with FMLA Claims

By Jeffrey Rhodes May 16, 2018
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A chemical plant worker can proceed with his claim that he was wrongfully discharged under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), even though the employer claimed that there were defects in his disability benefits application, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee ruled.

The plaintiff was a former employee of Eastman Chemical Company, where he worked as a boiler auxiliary operator. In June 2013, he became ill and missed work. He e-mailed his supervisor and notified him of his intention to take 36 hours of medical leave under the FMLA. He was diagnosed with a viral infection and prescribed medication. His medical provider completed an FMLA certification form, through which she verified his illness and noted that he was unable to perform his job because of his illness. The plaintiff asked her to send the form to his employer, and the office's staff told him that it mailed the form to Eastman.

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

During the plaintiff's absence from work, Eastman continued to pay him his regular wages under its short-term disability plan. The plan required that in all cases of disability lasting 36 or more work hours, employees must provide medical evidence that confirms their disability no later than 20 days after it is requested. Also, they must furnish certain documents no later than two days after they are requested. The documents include:

  • A Medical Evaluation Report Form TED 10975 (MERF).
  • A release of the employee's medical information.
  • Any other documents necessary to validate the existence of a disability.

After learning that the plaintiff had missed more than 36 hours of work because of an illness, a nurse in Eastman's work re-entry department mailed a packet to him containing information describing how to remain compliant with the company's short-term disability program, a MERF and FMLA paperwork. Weeks later, Eastman told the plaintiff that it had not yet received the necessary medical documentation from his medical providers; specifically, it requested a MERF, which it said was essential for compliance with the plan.

The plaintiff responded that he did not apply for disability benefits, and he was unaware that Eastman was depositing these benefits into his account.

The plaintiff visited his physician, who ordered him to undergo numerous tests and completed a new FMLA form and MERF describing his primary diagnosis as uncontrolled hypertension and listing various work-related restrictions for the plaintiff. These included an inability to use a respirator, which was a regular part of his job. The restrictions would remain in effect for one to two weeks, and he was required to return for a follow-up appointment in three days.

The plaintiff went back to Eastman's medical department on that same day and handed in his MERF and FMLA form. The medical department's physician stated that the plaintiff's physician would have to complete his next MERF. The plaintiff instructed the physician to hold his current MERF and said he would provide another one.

Before the plaintiff's follow-up appointment, Eastman decided to end his employment, stating that he had not complied with the process of providing continuing evidence of disability and that his medical records contained no indication that he should be out of work. Eastman therefore concluded that his absence from work constituted a failure to adhere to the plan, which warranted his termination.

The plaintiff filed suit against Eastman, claiming it interfered with his FMLA rights and terminated him in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. Eastman moved for summary judgment on these claims.

The court ruled that the record contained no evidence that Eastman ever formally placed the plaintiff on concurrent FMLA leave with his short-term disability leave, despite his requests for it. Eastman had yet to approve his FMLA leave by the time it chose to terminate him, though he turned in his paperwork weeks earlier. The plaintiff wanted only FMLA leave, but Eastman instead brought him into a disability plan.

The application for disability benefits under the plan was not mandatory, and the plaintiff did not originally apply for them. Thus, a reasonable jury could rule that Eastman violated the FMLA by discharging the plaintiff for failing to honor the terms of a disability plan that was optional and that the evidence shows he did not voluntarily take part in.

McMurray v. Eastman Chemical Company, E.D. Tenn., No. 2:16-CV-270 (Apr. 16, 2018)

Professional Pointer: Employer generosity in leave plans can sometimes backfire. A leave plan that provides disability payments during unpaid FMLA leave can actually run afoul of the law if it requires documentation beyond what the FMLA requires for an employee to qualify for leave.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

 

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