Clear Communication May Limit FMLA and ADA Liability

When does open heart surgery not qualify for FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) protection?  As demonstrated by the recent case Ahmed v. The Salvation Army, perhaps when the employee repeatedly fails to submit proper paperwork.  The employee in this case told her Maryland-based employer she would need leave for open-heart surgery.  The company responded appropriately by sending her FMLA paperwork. The employee signed the forms, but did not respond to the seven numbered questions. The company asked her again to complete the form, but again she left the seven questions blank. Even when the company sent a certified letter to her home stating that she would be considered absent without authorization if she refused to turn in the completed form, the employee sent nothing back. The company followed through on its threat and terminated the employee for unauthorized absences, and the employee sued for violations of the ADA and the FMLA. The trial court agreed with the company, the employee appealed, but on appeal the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed, reasoning that because the company sought pertinent information, explained what information it needed, and gave the employee time to rectify the problem, the employee’s claims were without merit.  While this strategy was aggressive and may not achieve the same result in a different context, to protect their rights companies should implement authorized paperwork, carefully review the forms returned by their employees, and clearly communicate any deficiency.