Case: Taking FMLA leave did not create ADA protection

12/06/2023

Employee’s termination upheld

Erin took six weeks of leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for gallbladder surgery. Shortly after she returned to work in November, she came down with COVID, and was forced to take more time off as administrative leave; this time until January of the next year.

In late February, the employer suspended Erin for allegedly falsifying her timecard and lying about it. The employer fired her five days later.

This came as a surprise to Erin, as she claimed the employer never contacted her to fully investigate the allegations or ask for an explanation. She was not told what days she was accused of stealing time from or what circumstances led to her accusation.

The claim

Erin sued, arguing that the allegations were a pretext for firing her, and that the real reason for the firing was her condition and need for leave, in violation of the FMLA and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The employer argued that Erin did not have a disability at the time she was fired, and that she was not fired because of her condition, since she had recovered.

The ruling

Agreeing with the employer, the court ruled that Erin did not have a disability when she was fired — or at least she didn't provide enough evidence to support that claim.

Erin had recovered from her gallbladder surgery by the time she returned to work in November. Despite having some follow-up treatment, the court indicated that the treatment did not mean she had a disability.

The court also found that Erin's COVID was not a disability, as the lingering effects resolved in early February — weeks before she was fired.

Addressing Erin's claim that her earlier leave for gallbladder surgery was protected by the ADA, the court found that the leave was protected by the FMLA. Being covered by the FMLA, however, did not mean the leave was automatically protected by the ADA as well. Erin did not request an accommodation upon her return to work, even after her COVID-related administrative leave. She did not ask for leave related to a disability.

Erin could not, the court said, "reach back to previous leaves and deem them an exercise of her rights under the ADA." The gap between her leave and her firing was also too great to support a pretext claim.

Coleman v. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. 22-1445, November 8, 2023.

Key to Remember: Just because an employee takes FMLA leave does not automatically mean they also have protections under the ADA. An FMLA serious health condition isn't always a disability.

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.

The J. J. Keller FMLA Manager service is your business resource for tracking employee leave and ensuring compliance with the latest Federal and State FMLA requirements.