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Seventh Circuit Case Is Excellent Reminder of FMLA Best Practices

By Michael S. Powers - McMahon Berger, P.C.

May 4, 2018

As an employer, how do you know when an employee’s illness or medical condition could give rise to a claim for mandatory medical leave, disability protections, or discrimination?  The answer, of course, is that you don’t.  On any given day an employee, whether historically healthy or not, could call in sick with a condition that might later develop into a disability.  Or, an employee with attendance problems might later attempt to blame those problems on injury or illness and, if disciplined for absenteeism, describe that discipline as disability discrimination.  Often times the employer’s greatest asset will be having effective, legally compliant policies, and following those policies methodically.  A recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals case is an excellent reminder of the importance of Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and medical leave policies, and it presents a thorough primer on the intersection of attendance issues and possible discrimination claims.

The case of Guzman v. Brown County, is, in many ways, the stuff of an employer’s nightmares.  The plaintiff, Caroline Guzman, built a complex and well-litigated case around her medical condition after she was terminated for chronic absenteeism.  However, it is entirely uncertain whether she suffered from the condition in question at the time of her termination, and it is unknown whether her employer ever knew that she suffered from the condition at any time.  In early 2006, Ms. Guzman had been diagnosed with sleep apnea.  She was initially given a CPAP machine to treat that condition.  After a 2008 gastric bypass surgery her condition improved, and she threw the CPAP machine away in 2014.  Yet when Ms. Guzman was terminated in 2013 after numerous attendance violations, that condition, and its potential reoccurrence, formed the core of her case.  Ms. Guzman alleged FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation, disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Rehabilitation Act (which prohibits disability discrimination in the public sector), and retaliation in violation of the ADA.  Ultimately, a U.S. District Court for the District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment against all of her claims, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The plaintiff in Guzman was an emergency dispatcher who was disciplined several times for attendance violations during a period running from September of 2011 until February of 2013.  These periodic unexcused absences culminated in a three day suspension and a warning that if she was late or absent again she could be fired.  Guzman explained she had slept through her alarm on the day in question but made no mention of sleep apnea.  Less than a month later she was again late for work.  She informed her supervisor, who in turn informed his own superior, who decided to terminate Guzman.

When Guzman arrived for work that day, she asked her supervisor if it would help if she brought a note from her doctor.  Her supervisor stated that it would be helpful.  There was a disagreement as to whether Guzman might have mentioned her sleep apnea during that conversation, but it is undisputed that her supervisor did not relay anything about sleep apnea to his supervisor.  She then provided a note from her psychiatrist excusing her absence and stating that Guzman “most probably” had sleep apnea, suggesting that she be retested and treated for that condition.  However, shortly after she obtained the note, she was informed of her termination. The parties dispute whether she gave her supervisor the note prior to being informed of the termination, as well as whether she requested FMLA at that meeting.

With regards to Guzman’s FMLA interference claim, the Court found that while she was eligible for leave under the FMLA, and her employer was a covered employer, her claim still failed because it is uncertain as to whether she was actually suffering from sleep apnea at the time.  Also, in order to establish that sleep apnea was a “serious condition” she needed to show she suffered from a medical condition that either required impatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.  Guzman produced no evidence that she was being treated for sleep apnea at the time of her termination.  She also failed to give her employer notice that she would need leave.  She claimed that the employer had constructive knowledge of her need for leave, but the Court found that Guzman’s six incidents of allegedly oversleeping within an eighteen month period did not constitute a “stark and abrupt change” required to put an employer on constructive notice of a need for FMLA leave.  Her FMLA retaliation claim also failed because she could not show that her termination occurred because she requested or took FMLA leave.

With regard to Guzman’s disability discrimination claims, the court found that Guzman failed to identify any evidence to show that she suffered an adverse action as a result of her disability.  It found that the adverse action of termination came as a result of her continued absences and lateness.  Quoting from its own past precedent, the court noted that “[v]iolation of a workplace rule, even if it is caused by a disability, is no defense to discipline.”

Brown County was also entitled to summary judgment on Guzman’s failure to accommodate and disability retaliation claims.  At the time it decided to fire Guzman, the decision-maker had no knowledge that she was possibly suffering from sleep apnea.  Moreover, Guzman never requested an accommodation for sleep apnea before Brown County had made the decision to terminate her.

It is important to note how the court analyzed each of Guzman’s various FMLA and ADA claims.  The challenge for the employer is that it would have cost a great deal of time, money and effort defending her claims based on an illness that the plaintiff might not even have suffered from at the time of her termination.  In that regard, this case is a useful cautionary tale about the risky intersection of attendance issues, leave requests, and an employee’s medical history.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including all aspects of FMLA and ADA planning, compliance, and defense, for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.

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