In April 2021, the Federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) ruled payment of workers’ compensation benefits did not stop an employer’s obligation to offer an injured employee leave under FMLA (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993).
Vaguely familiar to many, FMLA is a United States labor law requiring covered employers to provide employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. How FMLA interacts with the workers’ compensation system is similarly ambiguous to many. Many employers with injured employees offer temporary light-duty work when an employee’s injuries prevent him/her/them from performing regular job duties. The Department of Labor has long taken the position that injured, FMLA-eligible employees could elect FMLA leave instead of accepting a light-duty assignment. However, in practice, many – both employers and employees alike – may not understand how the two benefits systems mesh together.
In Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, 992 F.3d 1233 (11th Cir. 2021), the employee (Ramji) sustained a work-related knee injury and missed 11 days of work before returning in a light-duty position. The employer (HHS) commenced workers’ compensation coverage for the accident but did not treat Ramji’s time off as FMLA leave – nor did HHS advise the employee of her right to take FMLA leave. After Ramji returned to regular duty without restrictions per her doctor but was still actively treating for her injuries, she then failed HHS’ “essential functions test” and was terminated. Ramji sued, alleging interference with FMLA’s leave requirements.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for HHS and remanded the case for a jury trial. In its decision, the court stated that handling workplace injuries consistent with workers’ compensation requirements does not absolve an employer of leave obligations under FMLA. The court found that: (1) Ramji’s knee injury was a qualifying “serious health condition” sufficient to trigger her right to FMLA leave; (2) she gave HHS sufficient notice of her need for leave under FMLA; and (3) HHS failed to satisfy its obligations to provide Ramji with notice of her eligibility for FMLA leave.
Bottom line: HHS could not offer light-duty without also making Ramji aware of her alternative right to take FMLA leave. Had Ramji taken FMLA leave instead of returning to light duty, she may have been able to recover further from a medical standpoint, pass the essential functions test, and retain her job at HHS.
What does this mean for workers’ compensation claims in other jurisdictions? Employers should understand that FMLA and workers’ compensation leaves run simultaneously. Employers can (and should) provide injured workers a notice of FMLA rights (including the ability to take leave instead of accepting a light-duty assignment) before or at the time of offering light-duty assignments to him/her/them. Of course, if an employee rejects a light-duty offer, that person may risk losing temporary total disability payments on the workers’ compensation claim; however, the employer does not necessarily have the right to terminate employment prior to expiration of the employee’s FMLA leave timeframe if an injured worker elects to use FMLA leave due to a work-related injury.
Written by associate Natalie Johnson.