The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Employer Interfered with Injured Worker’s Eligibility and Rights under FMLA
Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, No. 19-13461 (11th Cir. 2021)
Compliance with Workers’ Compensation Claims and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
On April 6, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit handed down a landmark decision in the case of Noorjahan Ramji, v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, 2021 WL 1257247, which has jurisdiction over Federal cases originating in the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. This case involves the overlap between workers’ compensation and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and showcases what happens when an employer fails to notify an injured employee about their rights under FMLA upon sufficient notice of an injury and instead unilaterally elects to handles the injury solely under workers’ compensation. The FMLA is a federal statute that entitles eligible workers who need to recover from a serious injury to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period. Workers’ compensation, as a separate and often state required program, allows employees injured in work-related incidents to receive payments from their employer for all reasonable medical care and lost wages that result from the injury. Employers are prohibited from interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s efforts to exercise any FMLA right. This opinion squarely places the onus on the employer to ensure FMLA leave is offered to an employee in addition to workers’ compensation benefits.
In Ramji, the Plaintiff sustained serious injury to her knee while at work and received medical care through her employer under workers’ compensation. Plaintiff was taken out of work following the injury and her employer, Hospital Housekeeping, did not provide Plaintiff with any information about eligibility for leave and rights under the FMLA. When Plaintiff needed to take eleven (11) days off between her accident and her return to a light duty position, her employer required Plaintiff to use sick leave. Upon her release to light duty work, the employer offered her a chance to return to work within her restrictions which included refraining from squatting, kneeling or climbing, which she accepted. Plaintiff also continued with medical care and physical therapy and, at all appointments and treatment, was accompanied by an employer representative in accordance with the employer’s workers’ compensation policy. One month later, Plaintiff was placed at maximum medical improvement (MMI) and released to regular duty work. The employer representative was present at this appointment but did not advise the treating doctor of what Plaintiff’s regular job duties were, that she would need to complete an essential-functions test upon her return to work, nor what tasks such test would demand of her. The essential-functions test required her to, in part, kneel, climb stairs, and complete deep knee squats that caused the Plaintiff pain. Despite the recent injury and complaints of pain, the employer insisted Plaintiff complete all the elements of the test. Plaintiff subsequently asked her employer if she could use accrued sick and vacation leave for additional recovery time so she could finish the essential-functions test, which was refused. Her pain ultimately prevented Plaintiff from completing the test and she failed. She was then terminated from employment for failing to complete the test. Her additional request to use unused sick and vacation time was again refused by her employer.
Plaintiff filed suit against her employer for interference with her FMLA rights. The District Court granted summary judgement in favor of the employer. Their reasoning was that her treating doctor cleared her at MMI with a zero percent (0%) rating, and they found that her employer could not have been expected to conclude she was entitled to any leave under the FMLA and that she had no right to restoration to a different position or to a reasonable accommodation under the FMLA. Plaintiff appealed.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the grant of Summary Judgment that was in favor of the employer, and remanded the case for further proceedings finding that employer, Hospital Housekeeping, could not exempt itself from its FMLA notice obligations just because workers’ compensation benefits were provided. The FMLA regulations contemplate this very scenario and specify that these benefits are to run concurrently. The Court further found that Ramji’s acceptance of a light-duty position did not relieve Hospital Housekeeping of its FMLA obligations. The FMLA regulations unambiguously prohibit precisely this employer conduct: “[I]f FMLA entitles an employee to leave, an employer may not, in lieu of FMLA leave entitlement, require an employee to take a job with a reasonable accommodation.” See 29 C.F.R. § 825.702(d)(1) (emphasis added).
In Ramji, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals set forth that in order to establish an FMLA interference claim, an employee must show they were entitled to a benefit under the FMLA, that their employer denied them that benefit, must demonstrate “some harm” that resulted from the alleged interference, and show how such harm must be remediable by either damages or equitable relief. Here, the Court found ample evidence that Plaintiff’s knee injury served as a qualifying reason to take FMLA leave, that she provided sufficient notice to her employer to trigger their duty to inform her of her right to FMLA leave, and found she provided enough evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude she met these requirements. The Court found the facts demonstrated that Hospital Housekeeping knew of the nature of Ramji’s injury and her potential qualification for FMLA leave, and that they denied her notice of eligibility and her leave rights under FMLA. Once the formal workers’ compensation was filed, that provided sufficient notice of the nature of her injury and Hospital Housekeeping should have provided Plaintiff with FMLA notice within five (5) business days. The Court found that a material issue of fact existed over whether an uninterrupted twelve-week FMLA leave period would have made the difference to whether Plaintiff could have passed her essential-functions test and returned to work; thus finding that a reasonable jury could have concluded the employer interfered with her FMLA rights and damages resulted.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in their decision has made it clear that compliance with workers’ compensation does not absolve an employer of obligations they have under the FMLA. Where an employee timely provides sufficient information to their employer to put them on notice that an absence is potentially FMLA-qualifying, an employer must then promptly provide notice of eligibility with rights and responsibilities or run the risk of being found to have interfered with an injured workers’ FMLA rights. As this case points out, even an employer’s best of intentions in adopting a wait-and-see approach will not suffice.
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See 29 C.F.R. § 825.702(d)(2) (“An employee may be on a workers’ compensation absence due to an on-the-job injury or illness which also qualifies as a serious health condition under FMLA. The workers’ compensation absence and FMLA leave may run concurrently, subject to proper notice and designation by the employer”).
 See also id. § 852.702(d)(2)(“If the employer offers [a light-duty] position, the employee is permitted but not required to accept the position. As a result, the employee may no longer qualify for payments from the workers’ compensation benefit plan, but the employee is entitled to continue on unpaid FMLA leave until either the employee is able to return to the same or equivalent job the employee left or until the 12-week FMLA leave entitlement is exhausted.”) (citation and quotations omitted).