How much extra leave is reasonable for an employee who has exhausted FMLA but is not yet capable of returning to work? Does an employer have to keep the absent employee’s job open?  What medical evidence is needed?   How much interactive dialogue is enough?  What about an employee is who is unreasonable and/or demanding?

A recent opinion from the Eighth Circuit provides helpful guidance about these and other problems employers face when deciding whether extended medical leave is a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a serious medical condition who is not yet capable of returning to work. See Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights, (8th Cir. 2/4/2019).

Continue Reading Eighth Circuit Case Provides Guidance on How to Handle the Vexing Problem of Extended Medical Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

This is a question about which Iowa employers are increasingly concerned.  The probability your employees and applicants for employment have used marijuana in some form has substantially increased in recent years.    Medical marijuana use is now legal in 34 states and the District of Columbia.  Recreational use is legal in ten states.    But, marijuana is still classified as a “Schedule I” drug under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal to possess, use, or sell.  The very fact that marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug means the Food and Drug Administration has determined it has no currently accepted medical use, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.

Continue Reading Does Iowa’s Medical Marijuana Law Impact an Employer’s Right to Maintain a Drug-Free Workplace?

Employers that accommodate employees’ temporary disabilities should consider extending the practice to nursing mothers returning to work following maternity leave.   That’s the lesson of a recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit  (Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 11th Cir., 9/7/2017)    In Hicks, a City police department’s insistence that an officer return to the beat rather than to allowing her work a temporary desk job resulted in a substantial plaintiff verdict.

Continue Reading Court Affirms Six-Figure Verdict to Nursing Mother Who Quit Because of Employer’s Failure to Provide Suitable Breastfeeding Accommodation

How to best accommodate pregnant employees is a frequent challenge Iowa employers face.    Pregnant employees may be entitled to protection under the laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, as well as those requiring equal treatment based upon gender and disability.  Many employers have tried to walk this fine line with policies that allow for accommodation of a temporary disability only if it is the result of an on-the-job injury.   For non-worked related temporary disabilities (which pregnancy presumably is almost all the time), no accommodation is offered.

The theory behind such policies is that it treats similarly situated employees equally, regardless of gender or the nature of the temporary disability.   The distinction is drawn between work and non-work causes of the temporary disability.   The rationale for treating on-the-job injuries differently is that the workers’ compensation law provides an incentive to return injured workers to work as soon as possible, indexso as to avoid paying benefits for temporary total disability.

Until about the last year or so, this was a workable policy for an employer to have.   But, two cases decided last year, one by the U.S. Supreme Court (Young v. UPS)  and one by the Iowa Supreme Court (McQuistion v. City of Clinton) should cause employers to re-visit and possibly change their policies governing temporary disabilities and pregnancy accommodations.

Both cases dealt with employer policies of the type described here.  That is, accommodation was provided for some temporary disabilities, but not others, pregnancy being within those that were not subject to accommodation.   Although the U.S. Supreme Court addressed federal law and the Iowa Supreme Court Iowa law, the practical result from both opinions is the same:  this type of policy is presumed to violate the law against pregnancy discrimination.   The employer can overcome this presumption if it can show the legitimate reason underlying the policy is sufficiently strong to justify the burden it places on pregnant employees.   But, if the practical effect of the employer’s policy is to accommodate a large percentage of non-pregnant while a large percentage on pregnant employees are not accommodated, it will be difficult for the employer to carry its burden.    In the end, a jury will get to decide whether your policy is justified or creates an unreasonable burden.

The best way to avoid litigation is to change the policy that automatically results in pregnancy not being accommodated.   Each and every condition that results in a disability should be evaluated on its own merits to determine whether it can be accommodated.   While this may create more burdens for the employer each time you have to address a pregnancy related request for accommodation, it is more likely to keep you from being sued.

 

FMLA provides a qualifying employee up twelve weeks of job protected leave. That means the employee is entitled to return to the same position held before the leave, or to an “equivalent position” with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions.   FMLA does not require an employer to restore employment if the employee is unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition, including the continuation of a serious health condition.   But, as the recent case of Dollar v. Smithway Motor Express,Inc. (8th Cir. 3/27/13) demonstrates, and employers should tread with caution when deciding whether to terminate an employee on FMLA leave in these circumstances.

Christine Dollar was on FMLA leave from her job as a driver manager because of depression and anxiety.   She went on leave June 10, and was excused from work until July 9.   In the middle of the leave, approximately June 13 or 14, Smithway told Dollar she could not return to the driver manager position because of her poor attendance before she went on FMLA leave (much of which was apparently related to the depression). If she returned to Smithway, she was told her new position would be as a driver recruiter.    But, on June 21, Smithway told Dollar it needed to fill the driver recruiter position and could not guarantee that position would be available unless she returned to work immediately.   Because her psychiatrist recommended she be off work until July 9, Dollar did not return immediately.   Smithway terminated Dollar on July 6.  

At trial, Smithway’s defense to the FMLA interference claim was that Dollar’s depression made her unqualified to serve as a driver manager (Notably, Dollar agreed she was not qualified to return to the driver manager job). But, she claimed she should have been returned to the driver recruiter position upon returning from leave. Smithway contended it was not required to hold open the driver recruiter position until Dollar returned to work because FMLA imposes no duty to accommodate an employee by holding open an equivalent position. 

The Court skirted the issue whether Smithway was required to hold open the driver recruiter position, and instead found Dollar had already been transferred to the recruiter position at the time of her termination. Therefore, she had the right to “return” to that job (even though it was not a job she had actually performed) upon returning from leave.  

The Dollar case shows once again that bad facts can allow an employee to prevail even when the law is technically on the employer’s side.    Any time an employer is considering termination of an employee while she is on FMLA leave, the case should be thoroughly vetted with counsel in advance.