FMLA Articles

Evaluating a spouse’s condition is not providing care


Employee’s termination for job performance upheld

Steve was called on to address a customer’s quality issue in another state. While he made some attempts at doing so, the customer was not happy with his response. When told to return to the customer, Steve declined, indicating that he was already travelling home as his wife, who had a serious health condition, wasn’t feeling well, and he needed to evaluate her condition.

Steve’s wife, however, worked that entire day then drove an hour home. Steve got home and determined that his wife did not require medical attention. The next day, he went to work, and continued to work throughout the weekend. In the meantime, his wife ran various errands, including going out for lunch, shopping, going out to dinner and a movie, and purchasing groceries.

Later that month, Steve’s boss emailed the company human resources representative to discuss potential disciplinary actions for Steve’s handling of the quality issue. Shortly thereafter, Steve was terminated due to "Recent customer interactions and support have inappropriate [sic] and unprofessional. Steven has been counseled on the interactions and no changes were made.”

Steve sued, arguing that the employer violated the FMLA when it terminated him for not handling the customer’s issue because he was called home to “care for” his wife. He also argued that he gave notice of his request when he told his boss that he would not travel to the customer’s site due to his wife’s condition; that he was requesting a reduced leave schedule under the FMLA.

The employer argued that Steve was terminated because of the way he handled the customer; that Steve did not provide notice of the need for leave, and that he was not needed to care for his wife, as he merely evaluated her.

The court held that Steve didn’t tell his boss that he was returning home to care for his wife; he said he was going home to "evaluate” her condition. The employer, said the court, could not be expected to make the inferential leap that Steve’s refusal to go on a business trip doubled as a request for a reduced work schedule pursuant to the FMLA. Steve was requesting that the employer accommodate his travel schedule to permit him to remain in a close geographic vicinity to his wife. The FMLA does not provide for such accommodations.

The court also held that Steve did not demonstrate that he was needed to care for his wife, particularly given the activities she engaged in, which indicated that she was fine; and that she did not need care. Evaluating was not the same as providing care.

Determining when employees are “needed to care for” a family member can be challenging. Cases like this one help clarify using particular situations as examples.

Schaar v. United States Steel Corporation, E.D. Mich. No. 18-13151, October 18, 2019.

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.


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