Labor & Employment Law Daily Placing returning employee in new position due to ‘avoid stress’ medical restrictions didn’t violate FMLA
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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Placing returning employee in new position due to ‘avoid stress’ medical restrictions didn’t violate FMLA

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Since “stress” was part of the essential functions of the employee’s role in the IT department, she was not entitled to reinstatement as her return would be considered the ostensible equivalent of “light duty,” which the FMLA does not require.

An administrative assistant in a college’s IT department who was placed in a newly created position after returning from FMLA leave with workplace restrictions that included “avoid stress” failed to defeat the employer motion for summary judgment against her FMLA interference and retaliation claims. A federal district court in Indiana determined that because a position like hers would require a moderate level of stress, and she admittedly took FMLA leave due in part to stress caused by interactions with her boss, she was not entitled to reinstatement since she couldn’t perform the “essential functions” of her prior position. Moreover, she failed to demonstrate that she was constructively discharged, since she was not subject to an “intolerable” workplace, but an “accommodating” one (McManus v. Saint Mary’s College, February 4, 2020, Leighty, D.).

FMLA leave after dispute with boss. After complaining to HR about her manager and his placement of financial orders, the employee had an altercation with him that left her feeling that her “life and safety were in jeopardy.” She reported the incident to HR by phone multiple times that day, and left shortly thereafter. Later that evening she began feeling physical symptoms of a chronic illness.

Doctor’s restriction includes “avoid stress.” After taking several weeks of approved FMLA leave, the employee provided a doctor’s note returning her to work with eight restrictions, including “avoid stress.” The employee met with the HR director the next day to discuss her restrictions and they decided that she would be moved out of the IT department to help avoid stress. In the meantime, she continued on FMLA leave.

Newly created position. About a week later, the HR director sent a letter to the employee confirming that she was being moved out of the IT department to “avoid stress” and moved into a newly created administrative assistant position in the graduate studies program. She started the new job shortly thereafter but resigned about a month later. She complained that she had been “given and required to complete tasks outside and beyond the scope of [her] original job description,” which “added unnecessary stress to [her] chronic health condition.”

FMLA notice. At the outset, the court rejected the employee’s claim that the employer violated the FMLA’s notice requirements by failing to notify her that her return to work after FMLA leave could be delayed due to work restrictions. Such notice was not required under the applicable regulations. Moreover, the information the employer provided—a letter to the employee and a provision in the employee handbook—was enough to understand that failure to provide a return to work clearance would delay return to her former position. It was thus “no stretch to understand that work restrictions would slow any return to work if her failure to supply a full release could prevent it altogether.”

Meeting not interference. The employer also did not violate the FMLA by requiring the employee to meet with the HR director for 30 to 60 minutes to discuss her restrictions and counting that time toward her allotment of FMLA leave. The meeting was “de minimis” and solely for the purpose of discussing her return to work. It was also immaterial who requested it since it benefited the employee by facilitating her return to work under her restrictions.

The employer also did not interfere with the employee’s FMLA rights by failing to immediately reinstate her to her former position. If an employee returning from FMLA leave cannot perform an essential function of her original position, due to either a mental or physical condition, the employee has no right to restoration. Thus, at issue was whether she could perform the essential functions of her IT job in light of her restrictions.

“Stress” was an essential function. Since “stress” was part of the essential functions of her role in the IT department she was not entitled to reinstatement, as her return would be considered the ostensible equivalent of “light duty,” which the FMLA does not require. The court reached this conclusion after examining her job duties in the IT department and determining that a position like hers would require a moderate level of stress. Indeed, she herself attributed above-normal stress to the IT department; and stress was at least one reason she sought FMLA leave in the first place, following the allegedly threatening altercation with her boss.

The HR director also testified that the two agreed that reinstating her to her position in IT did not comply with the restriction that she “avoid stress” and that reassigning her to a position outside of IT would allow her to return to work. Had she continued to work in the IT department, she would have been exposed to ongoing levels of stress consistent with her job description and contrary to her doctor’s restrictions. On this record, no reasonable jury could find that stress was not an essential function of the IT job or that she could return to that role with her restrictions.

Interference claim. Since the employer was not required to reinstate the employee immediately, she had the option of continuing on unpaid FMLA leave until the restrictions were lifted or accepting light duty work. The employer did not have to find her a new position under the FMLA, but did so reasonably to accommodate her situation. It also was not required to place her in an “equivalent” job, since she was not entitled to reinstatement in the first place. And since she did not exhaust her FMLA leave, she could not complain that she was forced to use FMLA leave during the time she was returned effectively under light duty.

Retaliation claim. The employee also failed to advance her claim that she was constructively discharged in retaliation for utilizing FMLA leave. Though she claimed that her employer “steered” her into an inferior position,” it actually sought to accommodate her concerns with returning to the IT department. Thus, she was not subject to an intolerable workplace, but an accommodating one.

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