Category Archives: Family/Medical Leave (FMLA)

November 15, 2017

Faking Cancer Delivers Colorado Postal Worker A Criminal Record

By Steven T. Collis

A longtime Colorado postal worker faked a cancer diagnosis to get time off of work, and for nearly two years, she got away with it. Her charade was discovered, however, when she misspelled the name of her supposed physician in forged doctors’ notes she provided to her supervisor. An investigation by her employer revealed the extent of her ruse, and she was eventually indicted in federal court.

Although this case is an extreme example and not representative of most employees, it’s a good reminder that you should keep proper documentation and conduct a thorough investigation if you suspect an employee isn’t being honest about the need for medical leave.

Deception Begins

In 2015, Caroline Boyle of Highlands Ranch, Colorado informed her supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) that she had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and needed time off. Boyle, who had been employed at the USPS’s customer products and fulfillment category management center in Aurora for 25 years, had recently been denied a promotion.

Over the next 20 months, Boyle took 112 days of sick leave and was allowed to work part-time and attend frequent doctor visits. Her boss also permitted her to work from home and granted her paid administrative leave that did not count against her sick-leave balance.

Faked Doctors’ Notes Lead to Indictment

To support her need for time off and other accommodations for her claimed cancer, Boyle provided numerous doctors’ notes to her supervisor. One note stated that she was being treated for lymphoma at Anova Cancer Care in Lone Tree. That note included the purported signature of radiation oncologist Gregg Dickerson. She submitted another note purported to be from Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Lone Tree, signed by Dr. Ioana Hinshaw.

In June 2016, a supervisor became suspicious of Boyle’s cancer claim, prompting a USPS investigator to begin reviewing the doctors’ notes she had provided. The investigator found that Dickerson’s name was spelled incorrectly on the note.

The possible forgery caused the inspector to show the note to two Anova administrators, who stated that Boyle wasn’t a patient of the clinic or of Dickerson. They also said that the template of the note was wrong and didn’t include the doctor’s U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and medical license numbers. The inspector then checked with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers and learned that Boyle wasn’t a patient of Hinshaw, either.

In March 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Boyle on felony counts of forged writings, wire fraud, and possession of false papers to defraud the United States.

Guilty Plea and Sentencing

In late April, Boyle pleaded guilty to the indictment as charged. According to the facts in her plea, after not being selected for a promotion, she decided to take some time off work by pretending to have cancer. She admitted she took substantial amounts of sick leave and received numerous other workplace accommodations despite not having non-Hodgkins lymphoma or any other type of cancer or serious illness. She also created the alleged doctors’ notes despite not being a patient of either doctor. She intended to keep up the cancer ruse until her scheduled retirement in April 2017, after which she planned to take a vacation to Hawaii. Based on the charges, she faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

At the sentencing hearing, a former subordinate of Boyle’s, Lisa Roberts, testified that Boyle had essentially mimicked her cancer diagnosis and treatment. Roberts had worked at the Aurora postal center and reported to Boyle until 2012.

In 2010, Roberts began fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma and needed time off for treatment. Boyle accused Roberts of faking cancer in order to take a long vacation, asking her why she didn’t lose her hair. Boyle demanded that she provide her confidential medical records, which she believed Boyle later used to fake a cancer diagnosis.

By the time Boyle claimed to have cancer, Roberts had lost her job in Aurora and moved to Texas. She returned to testify at Boyle’s sentencing hearing because she believed Boyle modeled her fake illness on her real cancer. She alleged that Boyle claimed to have the same type of cancer and to be receiving treatment at the same cancer centers, essentially using all of her medical information to create her fake illness. Roberts further stated that while Boyle was given wide-ranging accommodations for the fake cancer, she had denied similar accommodations to Roberts.

On August 22, 2017, federal judge Raymond Moore sentenced Boyle to five years’ probation with the first six months as in-home confinement wearing an electronic monitor. The judge also ordered her to pay a $10,000 fine and $20,798 in restitution. In perhaps the most fitting portion of the sentence, the judge ordered her to perform 652 hours of community service at a cancer treatment center, research facility, or hospice.

Lessons Learned

Most employees wouldn’t dream of fabricating a life-threatening illness in order to take advantage of sick leave and other employee benefits. But every once in a while, a dishonest manipulator may think he can get away with it.

If you become suspicious about an employee’s need for leave or question whether he or she really qualifies for an employee benefit, conduct an investigation. But be sure to do so within the confines of applicable law so that your investigation doesn’t result in unexpected liability – e.g., Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) interference, violation of privacy rights, or retaliation. In fact, if faced with a potential “fake” illness scenario, it’s best to consult with your employment counsel when you first suspect a problem.

October 5, 2017

ADA Does Not Mandate Multi-month Leave of Absence As Accommodation, Says Seventh Circuit Court

By Mark Wiletsky

Rarely do we receive definitive guidance on reasonable accommodations. But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came very close to providing that when it recently ruled that a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Back Condition Leads to FMLA Leave

In the recent Seventh Circuit case, Raymond Severson had long suffered from back myelopathy, a condition that caused degenerative changes in his back, neck, and spinal cord and impaired his functioning. Although he usually was able to perform his duties at Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures, at times Severson experienced flare-ups that made it difficult for him to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, or work.

Over the course of seven years of employment with Heartland Woodcraft, Severson rose from supervisor to shop superintendent and then to operations manager. The company, however, found that he performed poorly in the operations manager position and on June 5, 2013, notified Severson that it had demoted him to a second-shift lead position, which included performing manual labor in the production area.

That same morning, Severson had wrenched his back at home and he was visibly uncomfortable. He left work early and requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). He was granted FMLA leave, and his doctor provided certificates indicated that he had multiple herniated and bulging discs in his back which would make him unable to work until further notice.

Unable To Return To Work Following FMLA Leave

While out on FMLA leave, Severson’s doctor treated him with steroid injections, but they did not improve his condition. Severson scheduled disc decompression surgery for August 27, 2013, the same day that his 12 weeks of FMLA leave would expire.

About two weeks before his surgery, Severson requested an extension of his medical leave, explaining that typical recovery time for his surgery would be at least two months. The company contacted him on August 26, the day before his scheduled surgery, and informed him that his employment with Heartland would terminate on August 27 when his FMLA leave expired.  He was told he could reapply for employment after he was medically cleared to work.

On August 27, Severson had his scheduled surgery, and on October 17, his doctor gave him a partial clearance to return to work with a 20-pound lifting restriction. On December 5, Severson’s doctor released him to work without restriction.

Leave As A Reasonable Accommodation

Severson sued the company for an ADA violation alleging that it failed to accommodate his physical disability by refusing to provide a three-month leave of absence following expiration of his FMLA leave. The federal court in Wisconsin rejected the claim as a matter of law, entering summary judgment in favor of Heartland Woodcraft, and Severson appealed.

The Seventh Circuit (whose decisions are binding on federal courts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana) affirmed judgment in favor of the employer. The Court was very clear in ruling that a long-term medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Judge Sykes, writing for the three-judge panel, stated, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court stated that a reasonable accommodation is intended to make it possible for the employee to perform his or her job. But a medical leave that lasts multiple months does not allow the employee to work and that inability to work removes the person from the class of “qualified individuals” protected by the ADA.

The Court stated that brief periods of time off may be an appropriate accommodation in some circumstances. For example, the Court noted that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence may be appropriate for someone with arthritis or lupus when brief periods of inflammation make it too painful for the individual to work. But the Court ruled that a multi-month leave of absence “is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” Read more >>

April 19, 2017

Retroactive Leniency Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

By Brad Cave

Is an employer required to excuse misconduct that was the result of the employee’s disability? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently looked at this issue and came to an interesting conclusion.

Janna DeWitt has Type I diabetes and is insulin dependent. Beginning in 1997, DeWitt worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SW Bell) as a customer service representative in its Wichita, Kansas call center. Recognizing that DeWitt had a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), SW Bell permitted her to take breaks as needed to eat or drink in order to raise her blood sugar level. SW Bell also granted DeWitt FMLA leave which she took intermittently for health issues related to her diabetes.

Last Chance Agreement

In 2010, DeWitt made an error by failing to shut down service on a customer’s account after the customer cancelled service. Failure to remove a service plan after cancellation was known as a cramming violation under SW Bell’s Code of Business Conduct and was a terminable offense. DeWitt was suspended following her cramming incident until she could address the issue with her supervisors in what the company called a “Day in Court.” Her Second and Third Line Supervisors decided to place DeWitt on a Last Chance Agreement under which any additional failure to perform satisfactorily could lead to further discipline, up to and including termination.

Terminated For Hanging Up On Customers

Two months after the cramming incident, DeWitt suffered a severe drop in blood sugar at work which she stated caused her to experience disorientation, confusion, and lethargy, making her unable to communicate with anyone. After DeWitt found that she was locked out of her computer, she contacted her First Line Supervisor, Tom Heumann, for assistance. Heumann did not address her locked computer but instead told the Center Support Manager, Beth Kloxin, that  he had been monitoring De Witt’s calls and found that she had hung up on at least two customers. Kloxin responded by saying “I finally got that bitch” and did a little dance.

Later that day, Heumann and Kloxin met with DeWitt for a suspension meeting because of her two customer hang-ups. A union steward also attended the meeting. DeWitt explained that she did not remember taking the dropped calls and that she had been experiencing very low blood sugar levels at the time. Although they reviewed recordings of the dropped calls, DeWitt still did not remember them and asked if they were sure that the calls were hers. Heumann then told DeWitt that she was suspended and that a “Day in Court” would be held at a later date. In response to a request from Kloxin and the union steward, DeWitt provided her blood sugar levels for that afternoon.

About a week later, SW Bell held DeWitt’s “Day in Court.” DeWitt again explained that she did not remember taking the calls due to a severe drop in her blood sugar. Five days later, SW Bell terminated DeWitt for hanging up on two customers in violation of the company’s Code of Business Conduct and her Last Chance Agreement.

ADA and FMLA Claims

DeWitt filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and after receiving her notice of right to sue, filed a lawsuit against SW Bell in federal court. She alleged that the company failed to accommodate her disability and terminated her because of her disability in violation of the ADA, and retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave. After the district court ruled in favor of SW Bell on all of her claims on summary judgment, DeWitt appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico).

Employer Need Not Excuse Or Overlook Misconduct 

DeWitt asserted that SW Bell failed to accommodate her disability by not excusing her dropped calls which she says were caused by her disability. The Court disagreed, stating that the ADA does not require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability by overlooking past misconduct, even when the misconduct is caused by the disability. Instead, the Court cited the EEOC’s ADA Enforcement Guidance which states that reasonable accommodations are “always prospective.”

The Court found that DeWitt had not requested a reasonable accommodation to address concerns that her diabetes could cause her to drop calls. Using a disability as an “after-the-fact excuse” for workplace misconduct is unreasonable and employers need not ignore or overlook past misconduct. Therefore, because asking for retroactive leniency is not a reasonable ADA accommodation, DeWitt’s accommodation claim failed.

Decision-Maker’s Honest Belief In Termination Reasons

On DeWitt’s ADA termination claim, the Court assumed (without deciding) that DeWitt had established that she was a disabled person under the ADA, and was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job. The Court also accepted that SW Bell had provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating DeWitt, namely that she had hung up on at least two customers while on a Last Chance Agreement. To prevail, DeWitt needed to show that SW Bell’s stated reasons for her termination were pretext for discriminating against her.

DeWitt argued that dropping the calls was not intentional but instead, was a result of her disability – her severely low blood sugar at the time. The Court said that didn’t matter. Instead what mattered was whether the decision-maker, Kimberly Baskett-McEnany, who was DeWitt’s Third Line Supervisor, honestly believed that the hang-ups were intentional and acted on that belief in good faith. Finding no evidence to undercut Baskett-McEnany’s belief, the Court ruled that DeWitt’s ADA discrimination claim failed.

FMLA Retaliation Claim Also Fails

DeWitt also argued that SW Bell terminated her in retaliation for her use of FMLA leave. She offered evidence from a former manager at the call center who stated that employees who used FMLA leave were targeted as employees that should be terminated and that the company would look for other reasons to terminate such employees. DeWitt also pointed to Kloxin’s response to Heumann’s revelation that DeWitt had hung up on customers, saying “I finally got that bitch,” as evidence that SW Bell terminated her for using FMLA leave.

Again, the Court rejected DeWitt’s arguments and her FMLA retaliation claim. The Court stated that the former manager’s comments about the company targeting employees who used FMLA leave was no more than speculation, as that person had no knowledge of and was not involved in the company’s decision to terminate DeWitt. In addition, the Court determined that Kloxin’s subjective beliefs were irrelevant as she was not the person who decided to terminate DeWitt. Finding no evidence to send DeWitt’s claims to a jury, the Court upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of SW Bell on all claims.

Key Lessons

This case highlights some significant management practices that can help defeat discrimination and retaliation claims. First, hold all employees accountable to your standards of conduct. SW Bell terminated DeWitt for violating its code of conduct, providing the necessary legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for actions. In addition, because DeWitt could not provide evidence that other employees who similarly violated the conduct rules were treated more favorably than she was treated, she was unable to show pretext. Second, if a supervisor has a potentially unlawful animus or bias against an employee, take that person out of the decision-making process. Although Kloxin appeared to express animosity against DeWitt (although it is not clear that her animosity was driven by an unlawful motive), she was not involved in the decision to terminate DeWitt and that distinction drove the Court to reject DeWitt’s claims. Finally, remember that a reasonable accommodation applies prospectively. You need not excuse poor performance or misconduct for which no accommodation was requested. That said, when dealing with an employee with a known disability, weigh all employment decisions very carefully and make sure your actions are well supported by your policies and past practices.

October 19, 2016

Firing Employee On FMLA Leave Is Risky, But Not Always Unlawful

By Mark Wiletsky6a013486823d73970c01b8d1dc5d4a970c-120wi

Terminating an employee out on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave is risky business. After all, the major tenet behind the FMLA is to permit employees to take job-protected time off when serious health or family concerns arise.

But does that mean that an employer may never terminate an employee out on leave? No, but you better have well-supported business reasons for your termination decision, and be prepared to defend your decision in court. A recent decision by Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals offers a useful look at how a Colorado employer did it right and avoided liability for an FMLA-interference lawsuit.

Twelve-Year Employee Struggles After Promotion

Hired in 2002, Kris Olson began working for Penske Logistics, LLC as a dispatcher. Over the next ten years, he was promoted three times, including his 2013 promotion to Operations Manager of Penske’s Denver warehouse. In that role, Olson supervised over 30 employees and was responsible for hiring, financial records, moving and tracking inventory, conducting regular inventory audits, and other managerial tasks.

In his first year as Operations Manager, Olson appeared to be performing adequately, but not exceptionally, scoring mostly “2” and “3” grades on a 5-point scale on his 2013 performance review. He was told he needed to continue to train in his position. In January 2014, however, Penske issued a written warning to Olson for failing to fire an employee who had violated safety rules. Olson was told that any future failure to follow procedures would result in more severe discipline, up to and including termination. In June (about five months later), Olson’s supervisor, Rick Elliott, put Olson on a 60-day “action plan” that instructed Olson to hire more workers, process inventory more quickly, and respond promptly to phone calls and emails. The “action plan” concluded with a warning that failure to meet all requirements would result in Olson’s immediate termination. Olson appeared to follow the instructions in his “action plan.”

On July 9, 2014, Olson requested FMLA leave, which was approved. Olson’s last day at the warehouse before going out on leave was Friday, July 18, 2014.

Employer Discovers Employee’s Misconduct

July 18th proved to be a pivotal day for Olson. On that day, Elliott received a monthly grade that primary client, Whirlpool, gave the warehouse for June – a “D.” With Olson out on leave, Elliott asked a supervisor at another Penske warehouse, Nicki Brurs, to come to Denver to investigate why Whirlpool rated the Denver warehouse so low. Brurs found that there were at least 152 discrepancies between the warehouse’s inventory records and its actual inventory. In addition, Brurs learned that the warehouse was 567 audits behind schedule, having done only 37 random audits over the preceding few months.

At that same time, Elliott also discovered that over the previous few months, Olson had not billed Whirlpool for extra work performed by the warehouse. Earlier, Elliott had asked Olson why he had not billed Whirlpool for extra work and Olson answered that there had not been any extra work for which to bill. On July 28, however, Elliott learned that there had been several instances of extra work for Whirlpool, meaning Olson had lied to him.

By August 1, Elliott had made up his mind that Olson had to go. He sent a report to human resources summarizing the problems he had discovered with Olson, including his dishonesty. He detailed that Olson had hidden inventory losses by creating records for an imaginary storage location – a “ghost stow” – that allowed Olson to hide inventory losses for four years. He also reported that Olson had instructed his staff not to tell Whirlpool when inventory was missing, but instead, to report the missing units as damages. Elliott told HR that he wanted to bring in a temporary replacement as Operations Manager while Olson was out on FMLA leave and fire Olson on his first day back to work. HR agreed that Olson should be fired.

Despite its decision, Penske continued its investigation into Olson’s misconduct. Over the next couple of weeks, Penske discovered additional inventory errors and “ghost stows,” resulting in more than $120,000 of errors in the warehouse’s records. It also concluded that Olson had failed to train his employees, failed to enforce attendance policies, failed to return damaged items, and other lesser performance issues. Read more >>

March 8, 2016

Paid Sick Leave Requirements For Federal Contractors: What To Expect

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky

An estimated 437,000 workers who do not currently receive paid sick leave will become eligible for up to seven days of annual paid sick leave under recently released proposed regulations from the Department of Labor (DOL). Last fall, President Obama issued Executive Order 13706 to require federal contractors to provide paid sick leave to employees who work on covered contracts. If you are or expect to be a federal contractor, here is what you’ll need to know about the proposed rules.

Accrual of Paid Sick Time

For every 30 hours worked on, or in connection with, a covered contract, employees must accrue a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave, with a maximum cap of at least 56 hours. Contractors must calculate each employee’s accrual at the conclusion of each workweek. Alternatively, if a contractor does not want the trouble of calculating accruals, the proposed rules allow a contractor to provide an employee with at least 56 hours of paid sick leave at the beginning of each accrual year.

Contractors must provide written notification to covered employees about the amount of paid sick leave that the employee has accrued but not used. Notifications are required at the following times:

  • at least monthly
  • each time the employee requests to use paid sick leave
  • upon separation of employment
  • upon reinstatement of paid sick leave, and
  • whenever the employee asks for this information (but no more than once a week).

Notifications of sick leave benefits that accompany paychecks or are accessible online will generally satisfy this requirement.

Use of Paid Sick Leave

Under the proposed rules, an employee may use paid sick leave for an absence resulting from any of the following:

  • the employee’s medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental)
  • for the employee to obtain diagnosis, care, or preventive care from a health care provider for the above conditions
  • caring for the employee’s child, parent, spouse, domestic partner, or another individual in a close relationship with the employee (by blood or affinity) who has a medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental) or the need to obtain diagnosis, care, or preventive care for the same
  • domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, that results in a medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental), or causes the need to obtain additional counseling, seek relocation or assistance from a victim services organization, take legal action, or assist an individual in engaging in any of these activities.

Definitions for these terms are included in the proposed regulations. Contractors must permit employees to use their accrued paid sick leave in increments of no greater than one hour.

Leave Requests and Medical Certifications

Employees must be permitted to make a verbal or written request to use paid sick leave. If leave is foreseeable, the request must be made at least seven calendar days in advance. When not foreseeable, the request must be made as soon as practicable. Any denial of leave must be provided in writing to the employee, with an explanation for the denial.

Contractors may only require a medical certification issued by a health care provider (or other documentation related to domestic violence) if the employee is absent for three or more consecutive full workdays.

Carryover and Reinstatement Of Unused Leave

Contractors are permitted to cap the amount of paid sick leave that employees may accrue to 56 hours each year. But, contractors must carry over unused, accrued paid sick leave from one year to the next, with a cap of at least 56 hours of accrued paid sick leave at any one time. In addition, under the proposed regulations, contractors must reinstate an employee’s unused, accrued paid sick leave if the employee is rehired by the same contractor or a successor contractor within 12 months after a job separation. Contractors will not be required to pay out any unused, accrued paid sick time at the termination of employment.

Interaction With FMLA and Existing Company PTO Policies

Paid sick leave under these regulations may run concurrently with Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave but it does not otherwise change a contractor’s obligations to comply with the FMLA. In other words, if an employee is eligible for time off under the FMLA, the contractor must meet FMLA requirements for notices and certifications regardless of whether the employee is eligible to use accrued paid sick leave.

For contractors with an existing paid time off (PTO) policy, the policy will meet the requirements of the proposed regulations if the paid time off policy satisfies all the obligations under the proposed rules. But, if it does not meet all of the requirements under the regulations, such as not permitting an employee to use paid time off for reasons related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, then the PTO policy would not suffice. In such cases, the contractor would have to either amend its PTO policy to make it compliant, or separately provide paid sick leave under the proposed regulations in addition to its PTO.

Covered Contracts and Employees

The Executive Order applies to new contracts and replacements for expiring contracts with the federal government that result from solicitations (or awards outside the solicitation process) issued on or after January 1, 2017. It essentially applies to four major categories of contracts:

  • procurement contracts for construction covered by the Davis-Bacon Act
  • service contracts covered by the McNamara-O-Hara Service Contract Act
  • concessions contracts, and
  • contracts in connection with federal property or lands and relating to offering services for federal employees, their dependents, or the general public.

Employees covered by the Executive Order, and therefore entitled to paid sick leave, include any person performing work on, or in connection with, a covered contract. There is a narrow exclusion for employees who perform work “in connection with” covered contracts but who spend less than 20 percent of their hours in a particular workweek in connection with such contract work.

Next Steps

Interested parties and the general public may submit comments on the proposed regulations on or before March 28, 2016. The DOL then will review the comments and decide whether to make any revisions before issuing a final rule sometime before the end of this year.

As you can see, many of the requirements of these proposed regulations differ from what we typically see in an employer’s sick leave or PTO policy. Consequently, employers who expect to seek or renew federal contracts after January 1, 2017 should review their existing sick leave and/or PTO policies to determine what changes may be required in order to comply with the proposed regulations.  The devil is in the details on this one so don’t wait until the last minute to get your policies and procedures in place.

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June 22, 2015

New FMLA Certification Forms Include GINA Safe Harbor Notice

Biggs_JBy Jude Biggs 

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) unceremoniously published new FMLA forms with an expiration date of May 2018. The only significant revision is the addition of a notice to employees and health care providers on the medical certification forms informing them not to reveal genetic information in violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). 

Genetic Information Off-Limits to Employers 

GINA, which went into effect in late 2009, applies to employers with 15 or more employees. It not only makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate against employees and applicants because of their genetic information, but it also prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, purchasing or disclosing genetic information. 

Genetic information is defined to include information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, genetic services and an individual’s family medical history. Family medical history is included because it often reveals whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder or condition in the future. 

FMLA and GINA Intersect 

Under the FMLA, employers may require that an employee requesting leave for his or her own serious health condition or to care for a family member with a serious health condition provide a medical certification form completed by a health care provider. Through the medical certification form, health care providers provide medical facts about the condition, such as the expected duration, the nature of treatments, and whether the employee is unable to perform his or her job functions as well as information about the amount of leave needed. In some circumstances, responses by health care providers may reveal genetic information that is protected by GINA. 

Because of this intersection of the FMLA and GINA, the regulations implementing GINA offer suggested language that covered employers may use to specify that no genetic information should be provided when medical information is offered to support a request for FMLA leave. By utilizing this safe harbor language and advising the employee and the health care provider not to provide genetic information when completing the FMLA medical certification form, the inadvertent receipt of genetic information by the employer will not be deemed a violation of GINA. 

In the past, the DOL’s model FMLA certification forms lacked this GINA safe harbor language. Consequently, employers had to offer it separately or utilize their own FMLA forms in order to take advantage of GINA’s safe harbor provision. Now, the DOL has included the following language in its model FMLA certification forms: 

Do not provide information about genetic tests, as defined in 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(f), or genetic services, as defined in 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(e). 

The certification form for an employee’s own serious health condition includes a statement that no information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in the employee’s family members, 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(b), should be provided. 

Use New FMLA Forms Or Update Your Own Forms 

The new FMLA model forms, with fillable form fields, are linked here: 

Take steps now to update your FMLA practices to use the new DOL forms, or if you use your own FMLA forms, update them to reflect the added recommended language.

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March 23, 2015

FMLA and FLSA Lawsuits Are Increasing

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The U.S. federal courts saw a whopping 26.3 percent increase in the number of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lawsuits filed last year over the prior fiscal year, according to statistics recently released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Wage and hour lawsuits alleging a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) were up a significant 8.8 percent. These filings are the highest they’ve been in the past 20 years of annual statistics reported by the courts. 

The increasing numbers of lawsuits brought under those two employment laws may reflect how difficult it is to understand and administer wage and hour and leave laws. The increase also may be due to the heightened awareness by workers of their rights and benefits under these laws. Regardless of the cause of the increase, the numbers suggest that it is worthwhile for employers to focus their compliance efforts in these two areas. 

Self-Audit Your Pay and Leave Practices 

Before you find yourself defending a lawsuit, take the time to review your payroll and FMLA policies and practices, including these often tricky issues: 

  • Classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements
  • Calculating each non-exempt employee’s regular rate of pay and overtime rate
  • Rounding time at the beginning and end of shifts
  • Automatic deductions for meal periods
  • Treating workers as independent contractors rather than employees
  • Tracking time worked remotely or “off-the-clock”
  • Providing FMLA notices within required time period
  • Calculating FMLA leave for workers with irregular schedules
  • Administering intermittent FMLA leave
  • Not penalizing employees who have taken FMLA leave 

If your self-audit reveals any irregularities, take steps to revise your policies and practices to bring them into compliance with the applicable laws. Don’t forget state and local laws that may impose additional requirements related to pay and leave administration. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to consult with your legal counsel so that you don’t become one of next year’s statistics.

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February 23, 2015

Exempt Employee Salary Deductions for a Reduced Schedule

Brad CaveBy Brad Cave

Classifying an employee as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) comes with a trade-off.  Most employers know that exempt employees are not entitled to overtime.  But, in exchange for that benefit, the FLSA limits employers’ ability to reduce the exempt employee’s salary, even when they are not coming to work.  However, exempt employees are not immune from needing time off of work to recover from a medical condition, to settle an aging parent into an assisting living arrangement or to handle a long-term behavioral issue with a child. If an employee seeks some time off each week to take care of such matters, you may agree to allow the employee to work a reduced work schedule for a period of time. But when payday rolls around, must you pay the employee his or her full weekly salary or can you deduct pay to reflect the reduced work schedule? Missing this answer can have significant ramifications for the employee’s exempt status.

FLSA Salary Basis

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, exempt employees’ pay must meet the salary basis test, which means that the employee must receive a predetermined amount of salary for each workweek, without reductions because of variations in the quality or quantity of work during the week. Thus, deductions from salary for reduced working hours is generally not permitted under the salary basis test. Deducting pay for the missed time could result in the loss of the employee’s exempt status. However, two exceptions may apply to your employee.

FMLA Leave Can Result in Pay Deduction

If the employee’s reduced schedule constitutes unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the FLSA regulations permit employers to “pay a proportionate part of the full salary for time actually worked” without risk to the exempt status. This means that if your employee is missing work for an FMLA-qualifying reason, you may deduct pay from their weekly salary to reflect the unpaid FMLA leave time.

PTO, Sick Leave or Other Paid Leaves

If the employee has accrued PTO, sick leave or another type of company-provided paid leave, you can require that the employee use such paid leave to cover the partial day absences, as long as the employee continues to receive the full amount of their weekly salary. And, once the employee uses up all of their accrued paid leave, you can make salary deductions for full-day, but not partial-day, absences.

Saved Wages Vs. Loss of Exempt Status

Deductions from an exempt employee’s salary should be made only after careful consideration of the potential consequences. After all, the salary you save now for missed time may seem trivial if you lose the exempt status of this and all similarly-situated employees and owe them overtime for the past two years.

September 23, 2014

Cheyenne Jury Awards $1,481,000+ On FMLA Retaliation Claim

Cave_BBy Brad Cave

The series of large verdicts for Wyoming employees seems to be marching forward.  The most recent example occurred recently when a Cheyenne jury awarded over $740,000 to a trona miner after deciding that he was fired because he took FMLA leave.  With liquidated damages available in an FMLA case, the Wyoming court entered judgment in an amount in excess of $1.48 million in favor of the employee. This case stands as yet another example about the importance of supervisor training and careful, well-documented and consistent decision making. 

Long Term Employee With A Pain in the Neck.  We first told you about this case in March of this year, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Wyoming for trial after reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the case.  (Safety Violation or Too Much Intermittent FMLA Leave?). Here is a short recap of the facts. 

Steven Smothers had been employed by Solvay Chemical for 18 years when his employment was terminated.  Smothers had experienced back problems since 1994 resulting in three surgeries on his neck and other medical procedures, and an extended course of medical treatment by specialists.  Over the years, Smothers took intermittent FMLA leave for his medical appointments and when he was unable to work due to the pain.  The amount of FMLA leave he took did not go unnoticed.  He was pressured by the production superintendent to change shifts to lessen the additional overtime cost caused by his absences, but such a change would have cost him about $7,000 per year in shift differential pay.   Solvay also gave Smothers a negative rating on his performance evaluation because of his absences, and he was told that he was rejected for a promotion because of the leave. 

Smothers’ Safety Rule Violation.    In August 2008, Smothers and his coworkers were performing an acid wash, which Solvay did every six months to clean residual trona out of the equipment.   When Smothers noticed that a damaged spool piece had caused a leak, he began to fix it without obtaining a line break permit which was required by Solvay safety rules.  Smothers and a co-worker, Mahaffey, argued about whether the permit was necessary, and after Smothers removed the spool piece without first getting the permit, Mahaffey immediately reported Smothers’ actions to a supervisor. 

Solvay terminated Smothers’ employment on August 28, 2008, based on a joint decision of six Solvay managers.   Five of the six decision makers testified that the argument between Smothers and Mahaffey weighed heavily in the group’s decision to fire Smothers. Although the trial court originally dismissed the case, the Tenth Circuit believed that Smothers had presented enough evidence to create doubt about the real reasons for Smothers’ termination.   So, the case was sent back to the trial court for trial. 

What’s the Real Reason for Smothers’ termination? Like all retaliation cases, the jury in this trial was asked to decide whether Smothers was fired for a safety rule violation, as the employer contended, or because his employer retaliated against him for using intermittent FMLA leave or discriminated against him because of his disability.   We don’t have a transcript of the trial, so we cannot tell you what evidence the jury heard or what facts persuaded the jury.  We do know that the Tenth Circuit reasoned that the jury could disbelieve Solvay’s reasons because: 

  • Supervisors criticized Smothers informally and in his performance evaluation for taking FMLA-protected leave, and rejected him for a promotion because of his time off;
  • Solvay did not give Smothers an opportunity to describe or explain his side of the argument with Mahaffey, even though the argument was a central reason for the decision to terminate Smothers’ employment;
  • Other Solvay employees who committed safety rule violations were not terminated. 

And the Jury Returns.The jury found in favor of Smothers on his FMLA claim, and awarded Smothers the amount of $740,535 for his lost wages and benefits from the date of his termination, August 27, 2008, through the date of trial.  But the potential damages don’t stop with the lost wages.  Under the FMLA, the successful employee may be entitled to an additional amount equivalent to the jury’s award for liquidated damages – in other words, a penalty against the employer for the violation.  As a result, the court has entered judgment against Solvay in the total amount of $1,481,070, twice the amount of the jury’s verdict, plus interest since the date of termination.  The trial court declined to award Smothers any future lost wages.  However, Smothers is entitled to an additional judgment for his reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, which could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the total. 

Bottom Line.  Regardless of the final number after adding prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees, this is one of the largest judgments ever entered against a Wyoming employer.  We cannot speculate about what evidence led the jury to its verdict, but we can share some lessons, with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, that will help any employer avoid this kind of result: 

  • Managers and supervisors must be trained and committed to the fact that taking FMLA leave is protected by federal law, and must not be the reason for formal criticism, denied opportunities, or informal complaining.  FMLA-protected leave cannot be held against an employee for any reason whatsoever.  Any comment or suggestion to the contrary can be used as evidence of pretext.
  • Investigations must be thorough and even-handed.  While we don’t know all the evidence in this case, the jury may have heard that Solvay spent much more time asking Mahaffey about the argument with Smothers, while never asking Smothers for his side of the argument.  Everybody should get the same opportunity to tell their side of the story.   An inadequate investigation can be used as evidence of pretext.
  • Employees must be treated consistently.  Smothers had evidence that other Solvay employees intentionally violated safety rules without being terminated.  Employers need to mete out comparable discipline for comparable violations, or have a compelling reason why an employee gets tougher punishment.
  • Employers must respect long years of service.  Of course, keeping a job for eighteen years does nothing to technically change the legal relationship or create any new rights or protection for the employee.  But, after that length of time with a good performance record, it becomes difficult for a jury to believe that termination is an appropriate response for one incident. 

Wyoming juries have delivered substantial employee verdicts over the last few years.  Employers should pay attention. 

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May 9, 2014

Colorado Legislative Wrap-Up: Wage Theft, Disability Definition and Workers’ Comp Physician Choice Bills Pass

By Emily Hobbs-Wright 

The Colorado General Assembly wrapped up its 2014 Legislative Session this week, passing a number of bills that change the landscape for Colorado employers.  Here is a look at the significant employment-related bills that passed and are expected to be signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper as well as other bills that were introduced but did not make it through the legislative process. 

Bills that Passed This Session. 

Wage Protection Act of 2014.  Senate Bill 14-005 establishes an administrative procedure to adjudicate wage claims under Colorado law. For wages and compensation earned on or after January 1, 2015, the Colorado Division of Labor may receive complaints and adjudicate claims for nonpayment of wages or compensation of $7,500 or less.  The written demand for unpaid wages to the employer may come from or on behalf of the employee and is satisfied if a notice of complaint filed with the Division is sent to the employer.  In addition to existing fines that may be levied against employers who fail to pay wages, the new law allows the Director of the Division of Labor or a hearing officer to impose a fine of $250 on an employer who fails to respond to a notice of complaint or any other notice from the Division when a response is required.  All fines collected will be credited to the State Wage Theft Enforcement Fund to be used for enforcement of this law. 

The Wage Protection Act also requires Colorado employers to keep payroll records, including the information contained in an employee’s itemized pay statement, for at least 3 years after payment of wages and to make such records available to the employee and the Division of Labor. (C.R.S. §8-4-103 (4.5)).  Employers who violate this record retention requirement are subject to a fine of $250 per employee per month, up to a maximum fine of $7,500.  

This new law also provides for the recovery of reasonable attorney fees and court costs for an employee who recovers unpaid wages under Colorado’s minimum wage requirement.  Additionally, the new law sets forth procedural requirements for employers responding to a demand for payment and procedures for resolving wage disputes through the administrative procedure.  The majority of the new provisions in this law go into effect on January 1, 2015. 

Definition of Disabled Individuals Aligned with Americans With Disabilities Act. Senate Bill 14-118 conforms state law definitions of a disability to match definitions under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Specifically, the terms “disability” and “qualified individual with a disability” under Colorado Revised Statute section 24-34-301 are given the same meaning as under the ADA. This bill also moves the definition of “sexual orientation” out of the Employment Practices definition section (C.R.S. § 24-34-401) and into the general definition section for the Civil Rights Division (C.R.S. § 24-34-301.) It also changes the term “assistance dog” to “service animal” and provides additional penalties for violations of the rights of an individual with a disability who uses a service animal and for persons who cause harm to service animals.  The law also expanded the available remedies for retaliation and violations of the fair housing and public accommodations discrimination prohibitions.  Once signed into law by the Governor, these provisions will go into effect on August 6, 2014. 

Expanded Doctor Choice for Workers’ Compensation. House Bill 14-1383 changes the Colorado workers’ compensation law to allow injured workers more choice of doctors.  Currently, an employer or workers’ compensation insurer must provide a list of at least 2 physicians or corporate medical providers from which an injured employee may select a treating physician.  This bill expands that number to 4.  There are additional provisions related to the location and shared ownership status of the health care providers.  After signed into law by the Governor, this law will become effective on April 1, 2015. 

Clarification of Credit Report Restriction Allowing Employment Use By Financial Institutions.  Senate Bill 14-102 amends last year’s Employment Opportunity Act which restricts an employer’s use of credit reports.  This amendment clarifies that all positions at a bank or financial institution are jobs for which credit information is deemed to be “substantially related to the employee’s current or potential job.” As a result, financial institutions will be able to obtain and use credit information on employees and applicants when making employment decisions for all job positions.  Governor Hickenlooper signed this bill into law on March 27, 2014 and it became effective immediately. 

Bills that Failed to Pass This Session. 

Paid Sick Leave.  Called the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FAMLI), Senate Bill 14-196 sought to create an insurance program to provide pay to employees who take unpaid FMLA or sick leave.  The program would be paid for by employees who pay premiums into a “fund” in the state treasury; employers would not be funding it.  Eligible employees would be able to receive a percentage of their pay while on leave, not to exceed $1,000 per week. The bill would have prohibited Colorado employers from discharging, discriminating or retaliating against employees who seek to use benefits under the program or assist in a related-proceeding.  Advocated by the Colorado chapter of 9 to 5, this bill, introduced on April 15th, differed from previous paid sick leave bills as it did not require employers to fund the program.  On May 1, this bill was postponed indefinitely in committee and therefore, did not make it to a vote. 

Drug Testing Misdemeanor. House Bill 14-1040 would have established a drug misdemeanor for an employee who is legally required to undergo drug testing as a condition of his or her job and either tests positive for a controlled substance without a prescription, or knowingly defrauds the administration of the drug test by an employer.  To “defraud the administration of a drug test” is defined in the bill to include submitting a sample from someone else or a sample collected at a different time or some other conduct intended to produce a false or misleading outcome.  This bill passed the House but the Senate sent it to committee where it was postponed indefinitely. 

Anti-Union Bills. – House Bills 14-1087 would have prohibited collective bargaining for the state’s public employees.  House Bill 14-1098 and Senate Bill 14-113 would have prohibited employers from entering into agreements to require employees to join a union.  All three bills failed shortly after introduction as expected due to the democratic majority in both chambers of Colorado’s legislature. 

The bills that passed in the 2014 Legislative Session reflect a continued trend at the state level to implement new or refine existing employment-related laws.  We will keep you posted on any further developments.    

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