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Worker's suspension may have violated FMLA: Appeals court

Worker's suspension may have violated FMLA: Appeals court

CINCINNATI—The one-day suspension a state worker received for taking time off to see his dying mother may have violated the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal appeals court has ruled in overturning a lower court dismissing the case.

According to the Feb. 16 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Jerry Romans vs. Michigan Department of Human Services, Mr. Romans, who had worked as a fire and safety officer at the W.J. Maxey Training School for Boys in Whitmore Lake, Mich., since 2000, received a phone call from his sister on April 4, 2006.

She told him their mother, who suffered from lung cancer and renal failure, was unlikely to survive the night, and there were decisions that needed to be made about her care, including whether to keep her on life support.

Mr. Romans intended to go to the hospital immediately after his shift, which was scheduled to end at 11 p.m. However, at 10:30 p.m, another employee called in sick and Mr. Romans was told to stay on for a double shift.

Although he found another worker to take his place, a supervisor refused to give him permission to leave, telling him he would be fired if he did so.

Mr. Romans left the facility anyway, but “became worried he would lose his job and did not know what to do, so he turned around to go back to work as soon as he got to the hospital and returned to his shift,” according to the ruling. Another supervisor later allowed him to leave during his extra shift.

Mr. Romans received a one-day suspension for the incident, and subsequently was terminated on the basis of other incidents. He sued for charges including interference with his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and for retaliation for using FMLA leave, among other charges.

A federal judge granted the company summary judgment dismissing all the counts.

However, the appeals court overturned the lower court's dismissal of his FMLA claims.

“Plaintiff submits that this situation—in which he sought leave go to the hospital in order to make a decision with his sister regarding whether his mother should continue on life support” is embraced by the FMLA's language, the court ruled unanimously.

In remanding the case to the lower court, the appeals court also said there is a “general issue of material fact” regarding whether he was retaliated against for exercising his FMLA rights.

Jonathan T. Hyman, a partner with Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, P.L.L. in Cleveland, who was not involved in the case, said as a result of the ruling, Mr. Romans will be able to argue that he was wrongfully terminated for exercising his FMLA rights.

Mr. Hyman said the takeaway is that sometimes businesses “get too caught up in the law” when “you're better off making the human decision, and not the legal decision.” The employer puts itself in a “much better position” if it treats people whichever way the judge or a jury would like to be treated, he said.

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