Most employers purchase workers’ compensation insurance to provide payment and benefits for employees who are injured on-the-job. Usually, the workers’ compensation insurance carrier handles all aspects of the claim and employers are happy to let them do so. But, employers need to know that workers’ compensation frequently overlaps with the Family and Medical Leave Act. And, workers’ compensation insurance companies have little motivation (and no obligation) to notify injured employees of their FMLA rights. A recent case from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals shows the danger to employers if they fail to notify injured employees of their FMLA rights. See Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Sys., LLC, No. 19-13461, 2021 WL 1257247 (11th Cir. Apr. 6, 2021).
Noorjhan Ramji suffered a trip-and-fall while working on September 15, 2016. She took eleven days off work during which her workers’ compensation physician found that she could perform light-duty work. After that finding, Ramji’s employer offered her a light-duty position, which she accepted. Ramji continued to receive treatment and physical therapy. On October 21, 2016, the workers’ compensation physician found that she could return to full-duty. But, Ramji’s employer also required that she successfully pass an “essential functions” test, which appears to have been administered by her supervisors. That test required Ramji to complete twenty tasks assessing her ability to grip, bend, lift, twist, climb and push. When she failed five of those tasks, Ramji was fired.
A trial court entered summary judgment dismissing Ramji’s FMLA claims. The court reasoned that the employer could not have been expected to offer FMLA rights to Ramji, because she was released to full-duty. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the dismissal. There are several important aspects of that decision.
- Ramji’s formal workers’ compensation claim was sufficient to notify the employer that she might be protected by the FMLA. “That claim included information about the nature of Ramji’s knee injury, the need for emergency medical and follow-up treatment, and a release excusing Ramji from three days of work.”
- The information in the workers’ compensation claim “activated [the employer’s] duty to provide Ramji with FMLA notice within five business day ….” And, the Court found a failure to provide notice could be an interference with Ramji’s FMLA rights.
- The employer argued that Ramji’s acceptance of a light-duty position relieved it of the duty to notify her of FMLA rights. Yet, the Eleventh Circuit found that Ramji was entitled to choose between a paid light-duty job and an unpaid period of FMLA leave. “But Ramji never had the opportunity to decide between taking a light-duty position or taking unpaid FMLA leave. [The employer] made that choice for her by offering only a light-duty assignment.” The failure to provide the choice was also a potential interference with FMLA rights.
- The Court seemed to accept Ramji’s argument “that the FMLA notice provisions exist to ensure that employees ‘make informed decisions about leave.'”
Ultimately, the Eleventh Circuit decided that a jury should decide whether Ramji’s employer violated the FMLA. Few employers want to place their fates in the hands of jury. That fate, however, might have been avoided if the employer simply gave Ramji notice of her right to take twelve weeks of unpaid FMLA leave.
The lesson of the Ramji case is simple: In most cases, employers should give notice of FMLA rights to employees who are injured on-the-job. If an employer fails to provide notice, the consequences can be significant.