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Federal Updates

Eleventh Circuit Rules that Workers’ Compensation Does Not Replace FMLA Obligations

On April 6, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (the appellate court) ruled in Ramji vs. Hospital Housekeeping Systems that an employer cannot choose between workers’ compensation laws and federal FMLA obligations.

The plaintiff in the case was an employee of Hospital Housekeeping who injured her knee while at work. Once the employee notified the employer of her injury, the employer gave her time off and light-duty work while she recuperated but did not inform her of her rights under FMLA and did not place her on FMLA leave. She was paid in accordance with workers’ compensation regulations while she was on leave. When she returned to work, the employer tested her to see if she could perform the essential functions of her job. When she failed the test, she was fired.

The employee sued the employer, alleging that the employer violated FMLA when she was placed on leave to recuperate for a short time and then subsequently fired. The employer argued that it treated the injury as a workers’ compensation claim and had complied with workers’ compensation regulations. The employer also asserted that it did not believe that the employee qualified for FMLA because she received clearance from her doctor after taking a few days off and returned to work. In addition, the employer stated that the employee needed to inform it of her need for FMLA leave and did not do so.

The trial court agreed with the employer. However, the appellate court ruled that the employer did not comply with its obligations under FMLA even if it complied with workers’ compensation regulations. FMLA provides eligible employees with 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job protection upon return from that leave. The appellate court determined that the nature of the employee’s injury and the fact that she requested leave to deal with it provided the employer with enough information to determine that she qualified for FMLA. The employer was then obligated to inform her of her rights and responsibilities under FMLA as well as her eligibility for FMLA leave. The employer could not choose between providing the employee with FMLA or with workers’ compensation benefits (in fact, FMLA provides that it runs concurrently with workers’ compensation) and cannot require an employee to accept light duty work in lieu of FMLA leave. The court determined that doing these things interfered with the employee’s right to FMLA.

The appellate court ruling does not resolve the case; rather, it resolved a Motion for Summary Judgement filed by the employer, which would have ended the litigation based upon a determination that the employer wins on the law. If the court had ruled in favor of the employer, the litigation would likely have ended there. However, this ruling allows the plaintiff to resume her litigation in the trial court. It is possible that the trial court and subsequent appeals may change the outcome of the case. However, this case is an instructive reminder to employers about their obligations under FMLA to inform employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law and that doing so is not optional.

Ramji vs. Hospital Housekeeping Systems »

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