In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit determined that an employer could be found liable for violating the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) when it failed to provide an employee with notice of her rights and protections under the FMLA in the context of a workers’ compensation case. The Eleventh Circuit explained that “providing workers’ compensation benefits cannot absolve an employer of all obligations under the FMLA.” Ramji v. Hosp. Housekeeping Sys., LLC, No. 19-13461 (11th Cir. Apr. 6, 2021).
Plaintiff Noorjahan Ramji worked for Hospital Housekeeping Systems (“HHS”) as a housekeeper in Snellville, Georgia. In September 2016, Ramji injured her knee while at work. HHS processed the injury as a workers’ compensation claim.
After receiving treatment, Ramji was released to return to light-duty work, followed by a full release to return to regular-duty work. HHS required employees returning after an injury to complete an “Essential Functions Test.” Despite being approved for regular-duty work, pain from Ramji’s injury prevented her from completing the test. Although Ramji asked to use sick and vacation leave with the hope that she could complete the test after returning from leave, HHS insisted that she was required to finish the test that day. After Ramji was unable to complete the test, HHS terminated her employment.
Throughout this time, HHS failed to provide Ramji with information about her rights and options under the FMLA, including her eligibility for FMLA leave.
The Court’s Decision:
Responding to Ramji’s claims, HHS argued that because she was cleared to work through the workers’ compensation process, the company had no reason to believe she required FMLA leave.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding that HHS fell short of the FMLA’s requirements in several ways. First, since HHS had sufficient notice that Ramji may have qualified for FMLA leave, it was required to give her notice of her FMLA rights. The opinion suggests that if an injury handled through workers’ compensation also qualifies as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA, an employer is required to provide the employee with notice of her FMLA rights.
The court also suggested that an employer might have to provide FMLA leave even when an employee has been cleared to work by the treating physician, if the employee cannot work due to the injury (or does not think she can work).
Finally, the case indicates that where an employer has returned a recuperating employee to work on light-duty, the employee may also have to be given the option of taking unpaid FMLA leave.
This decision provides a stark reminder that employers may be required to provide injured employees with FMLA rights and protections, even when an injury is being handled through the workers’ compensation process.