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Termination While on Medical Leave May Be Justified


Most employees who are familiar with the rights provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) understand that when you are out on approved leave, you cannot be terminated. While that is generally the case, the specific facts of each case must be considered. In a case out of Minnesota, the federal appellate court recently decided that an employee’s termination was completely justified after he failed to return to work after he exhausted his FMLA leave.

One Employee’s Unfortunate Story

According to the lawsuit, Gary Brunckhorst had been employed with the City of Oak Park Heights for more than 15 years when he suffered a bout with a “flesh-eating bacteria.” The medical condition required several surgeries and a five-month admission in the hospital and various nursing facilities. Eventually, he was allowed to recuperate from home. However, during this prolonged period of recovery, Brunckhorst exhausted all of his FMLA leave. In addition to his leave, his employer granted him numerous requests for an extension of his unpaid leave.

During his time out, his duties were covered by other employees without much problem which, unfortunately, lead his employer to decide that it could improve efficiency by eliminating Brunckhorst’s position altogether. As a result, they gave Brunckhorst the option of accepting a severance package or a different position, but at a lower salary.

Negotiating a Return to Work

When almost a year had gone by, the employee hoped to be able to return to work. He requested not only to return to his prior position, but to be allowed a four-month transition period where he could work from home, gradually building up until he was ready return to the office full-time. Whether this requested accommodation was reasonable depended on a variety of factors. The most important factor considered was the fact that the medical restrictions provided by his doctor did not require him to work part-time from home. In fact, the doctor’s note did not indicate that he needed to work at home for any period of time. The employer did not grant the requested accommodation, so the employee did not return to work and he was ultimately terminated.

Is Holding a Job Open Always a Requirement?

The general rule is that, except in situations of undue hardship, employers who grant FMLA leave should keep the employee’s original position open for them when they return. In this case, the situation was a bit different because the position was eliminated after Brunckhorst’s FMLA leave had been exhausted. Most compelling was the fact that there was no medical reason for him to return to an eliminated position when the alternate was medically acceptable. Furthermore, the employer was able to demonstrate to the court that there were compelling business reasons for eliminating the position, after Brunckhorst had been absent for half the year.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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