Recently, I have posted about the “at-will” employment rule. Virtually everyone is employed “at-will,” which means that the employee can resign from – or be fired from – his/her job at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. There are exceptions, however, to the “at-will” rule. If you were fired from a job and you are within one of these exceptions, then you may have a wrongful termination case against your former employer.
Here is one exception – an employee is terminated because of her own – or a family member’s – medical condition, disability or work-related injury. Federal and state laws (including the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act and the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act) prohibit employers, in a variety of circumstances, from firing employees who have disabilities, sustain work-related injuries or require time away from work in connection with a health issue (or that of a family member.) In my experience, many employers do not properly train or advise their managers about coordinating the employer’s various obligations under these laws.
For instance, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (the FMLA) generally applies to employers with 50 or more employees. When it applies, and assuming certain conditions are met, an employer must allow its employees to take unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. This leave can be taken consecutively or intermittently. The FMLA requires the employee to, among other things, hold an employee’s job while that employee is on leave.
I have seen situations where employers with fewer than 50 employees believe – incorrectly – that an employee on leave can be terminated. For instance, Company ABC has only 35 employees, concludes (correctly) that the FMLA does not apply to it and, therefore, that it need not hold an employee’s job. Consequently, Company ABC terminates the employee on medical leave and fills her position. In my opinion, Company ABC is potentially liable for wrongful termination.
In this hypothetical, Company ABC’s mistake was analyzing its obligations under ONE law only and failing to consider what other legal obligations it may have – outside of the FMLA – to the employee. If this employee was on leave because of her own medical condition, and if that medical condition constitutes a “disability” under the Americans With Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), then Company ABC should have considered whether providing a temporary medical leave to the employee was a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Company ABC should have considered the applicability of other laws also, for instance, if the employee was on leave because of a work-related injury under the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act.
In my next post, I will talk about an employer’s duty to provide “reasonable accommodations” to a disabled employee who is otherwise able to perform the essential functions of her job. This legal obligation is, in my experience, the one that employers most often fail to honor.
Janie Lanza Vowles represents individuals and businesses in a variety of wrongful termination cases, including cases involving wages violations, gender, disability and other forms of discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. If you have a question about this blog post or any other employment-related issue, feel free to contact Attorney Vowles to discuss your matter further.