What Constitutes a “Serious Health Condition” Under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

In 1993, Congress adopted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law requires retailers and other businesses with 50 or more employees to grant certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period in order to care for a new child or deal with a “serious health condition.” It is against the law for any employer to interfere with these unpaid leave rights.

As noted above, an employer must grant leave for a “serious health condition.” The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the FMLA, defines “serious” as a condition that requires hospitalization or “continuing treatment” that incapacitates a person—meaning they are unable to perform normal work functions—for more than three days. An employee who has such a condition and wishes to take unpaid leave under the FMLA must give his or her employee at least 30 days notice (when practical).

Green v. U.S. Steel

Not every illness qualifies a person for leave under the FMLA. A recent decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals helps illustrate this point. Although this case involves an employer in Alabama, the 11th Circuit’s decisions regarding the FMLA apply to all states within the court’s jurisdiction, including Florida.

Crystal Green worked for U.S. Steel. In early 2008 she suffered from influenza, causing her to miss work. Green had a history of absenteeism, and she previously signed an agreement with her employer to provide a physician’s note in the event of any future health-related absences. When she failed to provide such a note related to her influenza, U.S. Steel fired her.

Green sued in federal court, claiming illegal retaliation under the FMLA. The case went before a jury. The court gave the jury model instructions approved by the 11th Circuit for use in FMLA cases. For each of Green’s claims, the jury first had to decide whether she suffered from a “serious health condition.” The jury ultimately found that Green’s influenza was not a serious health condition and returned a verdict for U.S. Steel on all counts.

The 11th Circuit reviewed the verdict and found no reversible error. Green argued that she’d presented evidence—in the form of a doctor’s note—that her influenza was serious. The appeals court said the jury was still well within its right to reject that evidence and make its own factual determination whether Green’s condition was “serious” as defined by the FMLA.

Applying the FMLA to Your Business

It’s important for all Florida businesses covered by the FMLA to understand the law and its application. As the 11th Circuit noted in another FMLA case, it’s irrelevant whether an employer intentionally denies leave benefits to an employee; the employer is still liable for any violations. Therefore, the burden is on you, as the employer, to make sure employees receive any mandatory leave benefits.

The best way to avoid FMLA disputes is to work with an experienced Florida business attorney who can help you develop a set of guidelines for implementing the law in your workplace. Contact John S. Sarrett in Naples today if you have any questions.

Related Links:

Florida Supreme Court Poised to Hear Landmark Workers’ Compensation Case

Florida Legislature Bars Cities, Counties From Mandating Employee Benefits


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