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Employers continue to stumble on FMLA issues

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A Family Medical Leave Act case in which an allegedly abusive employee was terminated three days after he submitted FMLA paperwork illustrates the need for FMLA training, says an expert.

James Hefti, a tool and die designer at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin-based Brunk Industries Inc. was repeatedly the subject of complaints by colleagues who said he said he made inappropriate and offensive comments, according to last month's ruling by the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee in James Hefti v. Brunk Industries Inc.

According to one employee's complaint, for instance, Mr. Hefti “would tell co-workers what they were doing wrong using an unprofessional and degrading tone of voice, and instigate arguments with others as well.”

In March 2013, Mr. Hefti requested FMLA leave became his son was suffering from various mental health issues and he needed to arrive late or leave early to help drop him off or pick him up from school, according to the ruling. His supervisor, Rick Eisel, told him “that Brunk paid for Hefti's insurance and thus expected him to be at work.” When Mr. Hefti told Mr. Eisel he had turned in his FMLA paperwork, Mr. Eisel “appeared frustrated and aggravated,” according to the ruling.

Mr. Hefti was terminated three days later, with the stated reason being that his communications with co-workers “were unprofessional and generally inappropriate. “

Mr. Hefti filed suit in federal court, charging the company had interfered with his FMLA rights and fired him in retaliation for exercising them. The court refused Brunk's motion to dismiss the case.

“If Hefti was really on the road to being fired, it seems odd that Eisel would be upset about Hefti taking time away from work,” said Judge Rudolph T. Randa in his ruling.

“On the contrary, it seems that Eisel would welcome the respite from a belligerent employee. Thus, the inference can be drawn that the stated reason for Hefti's termination was a pretext for discrimination.”

Jeffrey Nowak, a partner with Franczek Radelet P.C. in Chicago, said, “What's maddening about the case is that, by all accounts, this seemed like one awful employee to interact with, and yet the employer trips itself up with one insensitive comment by a manager.

“This case screams for FMLA training for managers,” said Mr. Nowak. “In a workforce, so often these kinds of situations arise due to managers not understanding how to handle these situations due to a lack of training. They get frustrated, and that often manifests itself in what managers then say to employees, and as a result, it results in a great deal of risk for the company.”