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The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility
Lori Welty

The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility

Parts of the FMLA can be fairly complicated, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that an employee isn’t eligible for FMLA protections until he or she has met the eligibility requirements (e.g., having been employed for at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding the start of the leave). Not so fast, said the 11th Circuit in Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Cmtys., Inc., which opened the eligibility door a crack back in 2012. And more recently, on April 13, 2017, a federal district court in Oregon nudged that door open just a bit wider when it issued the decision in Johnson v. Jondy Chemicals, Inc., 2017 WL 1371271 (D. Or. 4/13/2017).

For those of you who don’t have the Pereda case at your fingertips, a quick refresher: In Pereda, the employee notified her employer she would be taking FMLA leave for the birth of her child on or about Nov. 30, 2009. At the time of her request, she had not yet met the eligibility requirements to take FMLA leave, but she would have become eligible by her due date. The court held that “because the FMLA requires notice in advance of future leave, employees are protected from interference prior to the occurrence of a triggering event, such as the birth of a child.” Thus, an employee can maintain an FMLA interference claim even though at the time of the termination, she was not an “eligible employee” with respect to the 12-month employment requirement.

The Johnson case present us with the intersection of another wrinkle. Recall that if an employee becomes FMLA-eligible during a leave (by meeting the 12-month requirement), the beginning of the leave must be designated as non-FMLA leave while the portion of the leave after the employee meets FMLA eligibility requirements would be designated as FMLA. 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(d). The Johnson case combines the prescience of the Pereda case with the hindsight of this provision to create a new animal: in some circumstances–despite the fact that the employee is not eligible for FMLA at the time of the request or at the time the leave is to begin–an employee’s request for leave could trigger FMLA protections if, at some point in time during the leave, the employee will meet the 12 months of employment eligibility requirement. The Court considered this hypothetical and concluded “the fact that an employee’s treatment commences pre-eligibility…does not, in and of itself, bar the employee’s rights in subsequent FMLA leave for the same treatment during the same contiguous absence…” The court held that an employee who notifies the employer of the need for treatment that will extend into a period of time in which the employee will be FMLA-eligible is entitled to FMLA-protected leave for that period. Therefore, any adverse treatment based on the leave request could be grounds for the employee to claim the employer interfered with his right to FMLA leave.

In the case at hand, the Court was not so sure that the employee had demonstrated that FMLA would have applied to a portion of the leave, because the claim did not specify whether the leave would have extended beyond the employee’s FMLA-eligibility date. As a result, the Court dismissed the claim; leaving open the possibility the employee could refile with more facts to support the claim.

Concerned about navigating your way through complex leave administration issues? Reed Group has options. We offer both outsourced and software solutions for clients with complex and/or multi-state employee populations. To learn more about ReedGroup’s products and services visit reedgroup.com.

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far
Ashlee Brennan

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far

Only three months in to the new year and we have already witnessed a handful of cases where an employee has asserted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two of these cases focus heavily on an employee’s essential job functions and whether the requested accommodations were reasonable. The third focuses on overcoming the hurdle of establishing that an employee is, in fact, disabled under the ADA. All three cases resulted favorably for employers.

In Whitaker v. Wisconsin Dep’t of Health Servs., No. 16-1807, 2017 WL 745600 (7th Cir. Feb. 27, 2017), Whitaker worked as a corrections officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, eventually transitioning into other positions due to a back injury. Her most recent position relevant to her case was that of an economic support specialist in the Department’s Income Maintenance Program. In this role, Whitaker’s job duties included processing applications for benefits, answering phone calls, and general case management, all requiring regular attendance.

Whitaker exhausted her available FMLA leave for her medical condition as well as a 30-day unpaid leave to care for her father and due to her own personal illness. Whitaker was informed by the Department that if she failed to return to work upon the conclusion of the 30-day leave, the termination process would begin. Whitaker did not return to work on her expected date but did submit notes from her doctor requesting additional time off for a medical leave. The notes did not provide any detail on her condition, course of treatment, or estimated recovery. Whitaker continued to assert she was unable to return to work and the Department terminated her employment. Whitaker sued, claiming the Department should have considered her request for an accommodation of unpaid leave rather than terminate her.

The court found that Whitaker was unable to establish that she was an “otherwise qualified” employee as required by the ADA as she provided no proof that she could fulfil the requirement of regular attendance, even with an accommodation. Whitaker argued that if she had been given additional leave as an accommodation, she could return to work on a regular basis. Consistent with other cases we have seen, the Seventh Circuit did not find this argument persuasive. Rather, the court found this accommodation to amount to an open-ended leave request, which was not reasonable and would have imposed an undue burden on the department.

Like Whitaker, Bagwell v. Morgan Cty. Comm’n, No. 15-15274, 2017 WL 192694 (11th Cir. Jan. 18, 2017), analyzes an employee’s essential job functions and whether an employee’s request to accommodate those essential job functions is reasonable.

Bagwell was a County groundskeeper whose essential job functions included tasks necessary to maintain and upkeep city parks, such as traversing uneven and wet surfaces, standing, and walking. Due to stamina and endurance issues caused by a leg injury, she was unable to safely perform these functions consistently, even with the assistance of an accommodation. It was established that Bagwell could only tolerate walking and standing for one-third of her shift. Although some equipment accommodations would reduce related difficulties, Bagwell was unable to perform the essential job functions of the position, with or without accommodations; thus, the court found that Bagwell was not an “otherwise qualified” employee. Additionally, the court found that if the County were to consider an accommodation, it would be a significant one, requiring a co-groundskeeper or hiring a third-party service to complete the work. Finding in favor of the employer, the court held that this type of accommodation would be unreasonable as it was the duty of the groundskeeper to perform such work.

Two employer tips stand out in these cases:

  1. Be sure to keep your job descriptions up to date and accurate. Regular attendance is often an essential job function and the courts rely heavily on employers’ job descriptions to establish the essential functions of a job.
  2. The courts continue to side with employers when an employee is requesting indefinite leave under the ADA, which is considered unreasonable and burdensome to the employer.

The third notable ADA case of 2017 brings us to Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., No. 16-1464, 2017 WL 627381 (3d Cir. Feb. 15, 2017). In 2011, Park Pleasant hired Alston to be the Director of Nursing at an adult care facility; one year later, Alston was having significant performance issues. Shortly after meeting with her HR director to discuss these issues, Alston missed work to have a biopsy and was diagnosed with early-stage DCIS (a form of breast cancer). Alston’s performance continued to be in question and she was terminated in early August 2012. Upon termination, Alston sued, claiming employment discrimination under the ADA.

To establish a claim for discrimination under the ADA, Alston was required to demonstrate that she was a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA. The court relied on 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(iv) in concluding that the determination of whether an employee is disabled under the ADA requires an individualized assessment to analyze whether the employee’s impairment ‘substantially limits a major life activity.’ Throughout the case, Alston failed to provide enough evidence to prove she had a disability. The court did note that cancer generally would qualify as a disability; however, based on the individualized assessment for Alston, there was no argument or proof that this condition limited any of her major life activities. Therefore, the court found that Alston failed to establish she was disabled under the ADA and dismissed her discrimination claim.

This case goes back to the basics, but it reminds employers that an individualized assessment of each employee and his or her ailment(s) or condition(s) is required to establish whether the employee is considered disabled under the ADA and thus entitled to the protections afforded by the act.

It’s evident that ADA discrimination cases continue to be brought by disgruntled employees. To avoid potential risks in litigation:

  • make sure your job descriptions are specific and in writing;
  • follow the interactive process; and
  • evaluate employees on an individual basis.

Outsourcing to a third-party administrator that specializes in ADA management, such as ReedGroup, will keep you ahead of the curve and compliant on all ADA matters. For more information, check out our solutions here.

The Digital Age of Medicine: A Stumbling Block to Patient Care
Katie Zaidel

The Digital Age of Medicine: A Stumbling Block to Patient Care

To realize the benefits of evidence-based medicine, physicians need to be freed from inefficient EHR systems.

Health care delivery has changed significantly over the last decade with the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs). Unlike their paper-based counterparts, EHRs integrate disparate functions like billing, compliance, clinical ordering, and charting into a single system.1,2 By attempting to align these functions, EHRs promise to improve the quality and efficiency of health care by facilitating information sharing and care coordination.1,3 But instead of promoting seamless efficiency, the system has drastically added to physicians’ burdens and increasingly pulled them away from patient care.

The rapid transition away from paper-based records was fueled by the 2009 economic stimulus package (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), which created financial incentives for hospitals and providers to adopt EHRs.1,2 Today, almost all hospitals and more than 80% of outpatient clinics use certified EHRs, which is a marked increase from the 10% of hospitals and 40% of outpatient clinics using rudimentary EHRs in 2008. 1 Unfortunately, hurried EHR implementations often prioritized administrative functions over system usability and thoughtful integration into clinical workflows.1,2 Left with cumbersome, time-consuming user interfaces, physicians have borne the brunt of the transition to EHRs, which now consistently rank among the top causes of today’s epidemic rates of physician burnout.2,4,5

 It’s easy to see why physicians are frustrated. By some accounts, more than two-thirds of the time physicians spend on EHR tasks is unrelated to medical care.6 When physicians spend two hours on EHR clerical tasks for every hour of direct patient care, it’s no wonder physicians feel more like data entry clerks than clinical specialists.6

System changes are urgently needed to free physicians from the burdens of inefficient user interfaces and data entry. The full potential of EHRs can only be realized when physicians can embrace them as useful tools that support the care process without them being an unwelcome and timewasting distraction.2 As publishers of clinical practice guidelines, MDGuidelines envisions a future where EHRs can be adapted to quickly and efficiently meet the well-documented information needs of physicians in clinical practice.7 Currently, doctors spend only 1% of their time using the clinical practice guidelines that are currently accessible through EHRs, primarily because the existing system is too unwieldy and arduous to navigate.6 Emerging voice-driven user interfaces and the promise of artificial intelligence technologies that proactively search, sort, and present information to the physician on command are promising innovations. It’s time for EHRs to serve doctors, not the other way around.

The digitization of our massive health care system over the last decade is nothing less than extraordinary, but we are at a turning point. The next generation of EHR systems needs to be built around the clinical needs of physicians so that it supports physician-patient interaction rather than impede it.

 

References

  1. Washington V, DeSalvo K, Mostashari F, Blumenthal D. The HITECH era and the path forward. New England Journal of Medicine. 2017; 377(10):904-6. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1703370.
  2. Watcher R, Goldsmith J. To combat physician burnout and improve care, fix the electronic health record. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/to-combat-physician-burnout-and-improve-care-fix-the-electronic-health-record Accessed June 19, 2018.
  3. Institute of Medicine. Crossing the quality chasm: a new health system for the 21st Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
  4. Lee ME, Brown DW, Cabrera AG. Physician burnout: An emergent crisis. Progress in Pediatric Cardiology. 2017;44:77-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ppedcard.2016.11.006
  5. Friedberg MW, Chen PG, Van Busum KR, et al. Factors affecting physician professional satisfaction and their implications for patient care, health systems and health policy. Rand Corporation. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR439.html. Accessed June 19, 2018.
  6. Arndt BG, Beasley JW, Watkinson MD, et al. Tethered to the EHR: Primary care physicians work load assessment using EHR event log data and time motion observations. Ann Fam Med. 2017; 15:419-426. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.2121
  7. Del Fiol G, Workman E, Gorman PN. Clinical questions raised by clinicians at the point of care: a systematic review. JAMA Intern Med. 2014; 174(5):710-718. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.368
The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility
Lori Welty

The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility

Parts of the FMLA can be fairly complicated, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that an employee isn’t eligible for FMLA protections until he or she has met the eligibility requirements (e.g., having been employed for at least 1,250 hours during the...

read more
Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far
Ashlee Brennan

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far

Only three months in to the new year and we have already witnessed a handful of cases where an employee has asserted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two of these cases focus heavily on an employee’s essential job functions and whether...

read more
Summer Legislative Roundup
Lori Welty

Summer Legislative Roundup

2018 has been a big year with substantial legislative activity. We’ve kept you informed throughout the year on significant measures, such as the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave law, New Jersey’s Paid Sick and Safe Leave law, and South Carolina’s Pregnancy...

read more