Pension & Benefits News Employee’s adult son required care due to brain injury, making FMLA coverage plausible
Friday, November 16, 2018

Employee’s adult son required care due to brain injury, making FMLA coverage plausible

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

Refusing to dismiss FMLA claims by a home care employee who was allegedly denied FMLA leave and terminated because she sought to take leave to care for her adult son, a federal district court in Alabama held that she sufficiently pleaded FMLA coverage by alleging her son was incapable of self-care and required her assistance to go to rehabilitation after a permanent brain injury. Moreover, the fact that she did not specially plead an economic loss did not preclude her from showing that the employer’s action resulted in prejudice.

The employee claimed she "is the principal caretaker and is needed to care for her dependent adult son, who suffers from permanent brain injury as a result of a car accident." She further alleged that her "son’s medical condition/disability requires specific care and renders him incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability." In addition, her "son required rehabilitation which he received twice a week with Easter Seals," and she needed to provide transportation "due to his incapability of self-care because of a mental or physical disability."

Filing suit, the employee claimed the employer violated the ADA and the FMLA. As to the FMLA claims, against which the employer moved to dismiss, the employee alleged that the employer interfered with her rights by failing to provide her with FMLA paperwork or to advise her of her rights, by denying her FMLA leave to care for her adult son, and by terminating her employment. She also asserted a retaliation claim under the FMLA.

FMLA coverage to care for adult children. In its 12(b)(6) motion, the employer argued that the employee did not plead a viable claim because she did not demonstrate that her son is incapable of performing self-care without active assistance or supervision. The court disagreed.

On its face, explained the court, the statute provides for FMLA leave for an eligible employee "[i]n order to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition." In 29 U.S.C. § 2611(12)(B), the term "son" is defined to mean the employee’s child who is "18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability." Applicable regulations expound on this definition, stating that "Incapable of self-care means that the individual requires active assistance or supervision to provide daily self-care in three or more of the activities of daily living (ADLs) or instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). Activities of daily living include adaptive activities such as caring appropriately for one’s grooming and hygiene, bathing, dressing and eating. Instrumental activities of daily living include cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking public transportation, paying bills, maintaining a residence, using telephones and directories, using a post office, etc.," 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(d)(1).

Here, the complaint had enough facts to plausibly claim the employee qualified for FMLA leave by stating that: (1) her son has a permanent brain injury; (2) he requires ongoing medical attention, including rehabilitation twice a week; (3) she is his principal caretaker; and (4) she must transport him to his rehab appointments. The employee was not required to allege every single detail she would need to prevail at trial, noted the court, it was enough that the foregoing allegations furnished the employer fair notice of the grounds on which her claims rest.

Sufficiently alleged prejudice. The court rejected the employer’s argument that the complaint did not allege any prejudice from its actions. While it was correct that the employee didn’t allege any loss of compensation or benefits, or other monetary losses due to FMLA interference, the employer erred in equating a lack of allegations of legal damages with a lack of allegations of prejudice. Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit has rejected the notion that an FMLA plaintiff must demonstrate entitlement to traditional damages. Instead, "to satisfy the ‘prejudice’ prong of an FMLA interference claim, a plaintiff ‘need only demonstrate some harm remediable by either ‘damages’ or ‘equitable relief.’" Here, it was at least plausible at this stage that the employee could demonstrate some harm from the denial of FMLA leave that might be remediable by equitable relief. As such, dismissal of her FMLA claims was inappropriate.

FMLA retaliation and interference claims distinct. Also rejected was the employer’s argument that the FMLA interference claim should be dismissed because it is the same as the retaliation claim. The court explained that even if the claims involved similar factual allegations, they were legally distinct with different elements and burdens of proof.

SOURCE: Boykin v. Home Choice of Alabama, Inc. dba Springhill Home Health and Hospice, (S.D. Ala), No. 18-021-WS-MU, October 26, 2018.

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