Workers Compensation Claim? Light Duty? Remember The FMLA!

A recent decision out of the Eleventh Circuit is a good reminder for employers on how the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state law workers compensation schemes overlap and interact. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal statute that entitles eligible workers who need to recover from a serious injury to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period. Employers are prohibited from interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s efforts to exercise any FMLA right. Separately, most states require employers to provide their employees with workers compensation benefits. Workers compensation allows an employee who is injured in a work-related accident to receive payments for all reasonable medical care and lost wages resulting from that injury.

In Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, 992 F.3d 1233 (2021), the plaintiff, a hospital housekeeper, injured her knee while at work. Her employer, Hospital Housekeeping, handled the injury solely as a workers compensation claim. Plaintiff took time off work and was released by her workers compensation physician to perform light-duty work. Her employer then offered her a light-duty position, which she accepted. Plaintiff continued to receive treatment and physical therapy. One month after the work injury, the workers compensation physician found that Plaintiff could return to full duty.

Before Plaintiff could do so, Hospital Housekeeping required that she complete an “Essential Functions Test.” As Plaintiff was attempting to perform certain aspects of the Essential Functions Test, she complained of knee pain and informed her employer she could not complete the test. She then asked to use sick or vacation leave to give herself additional recovery time in order to return to work to complete the test. The employer refused and insisted that she complete the test that day, since she had been released to “full-duty” by her doctor.

Plaintiff completed the test and returned to work the following Monday, only to find out that she had been disciplined for some prior work infractions and terminated from her employment for failing to pass the Essential Functions Test.

Plaintiff filed an action for interference with her FMLA rights. The district court dismissed the case and found that Plaintiff was not entitled to FMLA benefits because she had been placed at maximum medical improvement and returned to full duty. The district court reasoned that Hospital Housekeeping could not have been expected to know she was entitled to any leave under the FMLA.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court and in doing so, made clear how workers compensation and FMLA issues must be viewed in tandem.

First, the Court held that while Plaintiff had not expressly requested FMLA leave, she still had given notice to Hospital Housekeeping that she needed time off work and medical treatments related to her workers compensation injury.

Second, the Court held that Hospital Housekeeping should have provided Plaintiff with her FMLA eligibility notice at the same time it received her workers compensation forms and notice of her potential need for FMLA-qualifying leave. The fact that the Plaintiff accepted a light-duty assignment in connection with her workers compensation claim did nothing to eliminate the employer’s obligations under the FMLA. As the Court noted, the FMLA gives employers the option of running FMLA and workers compensation concurrently; clearly demonstrating that workers compensation benefits do not preclude FMLA. The Eleventh Circuit similarly noted that offering reasonable accommodations to an employee does not eliminate an employer’s obligations under the FMLA. The Court ultimately held that Hospital Housekeeping’s actions were squarely contradicted by the FMLA.

Lastly, the Court dismissed the employer’s final argument, which attempted to show Plaintiff was not harmed by a denial of FMLA leave since she did not reach full recovery within the twelve weeks she could have taken as leave under the FMLA. In doing so, the Court noted that if Plaintiff been provided notice under the FMLA, she may have decided to take advantage of a full and uninterrupted twelve weeks of recovery and been ready to return to work sooner.

Many employers consider workers compensation claims and FMLA as separate and distinct requests, which are often handled by different departments, internal personnel, and sometimes third-party providers. The Ramji case provides some key takeaways for employers and reiterates the importance of viewing these claims in tandem:

1. A formal workers compensation claim may be sufficient to put your company on notice that an employee might be protected by the FMLA.

2. The information gleaned in connection with handling a workers compensation claim may trigger a duty to provide an employee with an FMLA eligibility notice within 5 business days and a failure to do so could result in an interference with an employee’s FMLA rights.

3. Workers compensation benefits are not a substitute for FMLA leave. If you have an employee who qualifies for and receives workers compensation benefits, such as light-duty work, they must also be offered FMLA if the condition is FMLA qualifying.

4. Even if an employee agrees to a light-duty assignment, the employee must also be offered benefits under FMLA if he or she is otherwise qualified. The Ramji court emphasized that Employees are entitled to choose between a paid light-duty job or taking unpaid FMLA leave.

Employers grappling with the intersection of workers compensation, FMLA and ADA issues are encouraged to reach out to one of our consultants here anytime for a free consultation.

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