When medical issues affect your work life it is natural to want to keep your health information as private as possible. Often, employers will request that the individual sign an incredibly broad release that would grant them access to basically all of an individual’s health information which is far beyond what the law requires. However, when deciding what information to share with your employer, bear in mind that there are some minimum standards of disclosure that must be met in order to claim protection under federal law. This post will examine two cases, one under the Family Medical Leave Act and one under the Americans with Disabilities Act, where an individual shared information but the courts decided it wasn’t enough. Fortunately, in most situations there is a balance that can be achieved between protecting your information and protecting your job.
The first case addresses what information needs to be shared in order to request time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). See Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Inc., 746 F.3d 1161 (11th Cir. 2014) (hat tip to Employment Law Matters for bringing this case to my attention). As a quick refresher, the FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year to qualified individuals to care for their own serious health condition or the serious health condition of an immediate family member. The guidance created by the Department of Labor makes it clear that, when requesting FMLA time off, there are not any specific words or phrases that have to be used and the individual is not required to specifically mention the FMLA. However, the employee must provide sufficient information so that the employer can determine that FMLA might apply to the requested leave.
In Hurley, the individual failed to meet the standard of notice required under the FMLA. The employee submitted a vacation schedule that listed 11 weeks of vacation being taken in the next 2 years. When his employer denied the vacation schedule, the employee responded, “I have been advised by medical/health professionals that my need to avail myself of vacation time that I have earned is no longer optional.” The employee then met with his supervisor and, after a disputed conversation, the employee was terminated.
The court noted that while the individual tied his leave request to a health issue, he failed to indicate how that period of leave would provide care for a serious health condition. Therefore, the court granted judgment for the employer.
Hurley demonstrates that when an individual requests FMLA time off, they need to be clear not only that they are requesting leave because of a medical condition but also that the leave will be used to care for or treat the condition or that the condition will render the individual unable to work. In this way, employers should have sufficient notice that the leave may be covered by the FMLA and can then request any additional information they may need. The DoL has created a form just for such purposes and it can be found here.
When a medical issue affects your work but does not require time off, it may be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA allows individuals who are suffering from disabilities to request modifications to their work environment (known as “Accommodations”). However, as the plaintiff in the second case found out, it is not enough to merely put your employer on notice that you might have a disability that you would like accommodated. See Wallace v. Heartland Cmty. Coll., Case No. 11-cv-1184 (C.D. Ill., June 20, 2014) (hat tip to The Employer Handbook for bringing this case to my attention).
In Wallace, a professor claimed that her fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis were being aggravated by her incompetent lab assistant. The professor met several times with her supervisor to discuss concerns about the lab assistant and the effect it was having on the professor’s health. Eventually, the professor submitted a request for accommodation form that asked for two modifications: “1) flexibility in class scheduling and work hours and 2) recognition of the effect of stress on her symptoms.” The employer provided a flexible schedule and requested clarification on what other accommodations were being requested, including a list of potential accommodations that could be provided. The professor refused to meet further with her supervisor, filed a claim of disability discrimination, and then resigned.
The court canvassed the evidence put forth by the professor and was unable to find any request more specific than just “do something.” The court noted that the accommodation form itself is not controlling but that the professor did need to have some evidence of a specific change in her work environment that she was requesting. Without evidence of such a request, the court ruled against the plaintiff and dismissed the case.
As Wallace shows, it is not enough merely to put your employer on notice of a disability. Instead, employees should create a list of potential accommodations that is as comprehensive as possible, while bearing in mind that an employer is not required to give any one specific accommodation.
Health issues at work are always tricky and require employees to be extra careful at exactly the time they may be feeling otherwise overwhelmed. Therefore, Missouri NEA members who are facing these issues should contact their UniServ Director immediately for assistance.