2 Wrongs Can Make an FMLA-Right

In our last post, we explained how an employee can be both FMLA eligible and ineligible.  We thought we’d continue the “FMLA quirks” trend with a post about how two non-qualifying events can be combined into one FMLA-qualifying event.

Meet Fries v. TRI Marketing, a case from our neighbors to the West that actually have less lakes than we do (not to brag Minnesota, but facts are facts).  In Fries, the court found that 2 otherwise non-qualifying medical conditions equaled 1 serious, FMLA-qualifying medical condition.

The Timeline

Angela Fries suffered from genital herpes and interstitial cystitis (the link is to save you the time looking it up).  On a Friday, Fries missed work due to pain and frequent urination.  On Saturday, she began experiencing difficulty urinating and by the end of the day could not urinate at all. On Sunday, Fries was admitted to an emergency room where she had a catheter installed and was prescribed medications.  The doctor told her to take Monday off and return on Tuesday.

Fries texted her supervisor from the hospital on Sunday, telling her that she would have to miss work on Monday.  Like any smart supervisor, she responded by telling Fries she would be fired if she was not in.  Surprise, surprise, Fries does not show up on Monday and her bright supervisor suspends her employment.

In an even more impressive move, the supervisor then fired Fries when Fries threatened to sue her for suspending her employment.  Oh it gets better.  The termination letter she gave Fries literally stated: “Originally was suspended for 30 days, threatened to sue company and management. It was then decided that termination was the best.” Well hello there liability for FMLA retaliation!  That part of this case was already won, thanks to the supervisor who also admitted in her deposition that the decision to terminate was motivated “a little bit” by Fries’ threat.

FMLA Interference & Retaliation Case

Back to the point.  In addition to Fries’ great FMLA retaliation case, she also filed suit for FMLA interference.  In response, TRI Marketing argued that Fries did not have an FMLA-qualifying serious medical condition because she was not incapacitated for more than three days.  As an explanation, TRI argued that her interstitial cystitis was the cause of her medical issues on Friday and Saturday, while her herpes caused her issues on Sunday and Monday (this was all explained by Fries’ doctor).  As each condition caused only two days’ absences, neither constituted a serious medical condition.

The Court’s Decision

The court disagreed, refusing to separate the medical conditions and their effects with such definiteness.  Instead, the court found that the conditions were “temporally linked” and affected the “same organ system,” and thus combined to form one serious medical condition.

This leads us to an important takeaway: if you are an employer, never jump to conclusions about an individual’s eligibility for FMLA leave and never attempt to substitute your judgment for the judgment of a physician.  We’ve seen companies try it and it never goes well.  Doing so can lead to liability under both the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.