Employer’s FMLA missteps led to employee’s death


Why proper FMLA administration can be a life-or-death matter

A supervisor denied an employee’s request to get medical help for an FMLA-qualifying serious heart condition, and the employee died. Here’s the story.

Take a break and eat some soup

Cornelius worked 12-hour shifts, six to seven days per week for years in a manufacturing plant that was known to get hot. He also had a heart condition for which he had previously taken FMLA leave.

In early May, he almost fainted and wanted to make a medical appointment, but was unable to get time off from work.

Later that month, while working the night shift, he started having chest pain. He told Corey, his supervisor, that he needed to go home.

Corey denied the request, telling Cornelius that if he left, he would be disciplined and likely fired. Instead, Corey suggested that Cornelius take a break and have some soup.

Being a single parent, Cornelius did not want to lose his job, so he had some soup. While on break, his chest pain became worse.  He told Corey that he needed to go to the hospital.

Once again, Corey said Cornelius would be fired if he left and encouraged him to finish the soup.

Cornelius did and returned to work where he collapsed. He was taken to the hospital and was pronounced dead.

Deceased employee’s family filed suit

After he died, Cornelius’ family members sued the employer, in part, for violating the FMLA. 

The employer tried to get the suit dismissed, arguing that Cornelius didn’t provide notice that he needed FMLA leave. Cornelius’ family members argued that by saying he was having chest pain was notice enough.

The court denied the employer’s request, pointing out that Cornelius had previously obtained an authorization for FMLA-protected leave for his heart condition, which flared up on the night of his death.

Cornelius specifically informed Corey of his inability to perform his job at the moment due to his condition, which should have been enough notice of the need for FMLA leave.

The employer in this case failed to properly administer FMLA leave, leading to an employee’s demise. The case also showed that, despite his actions, Corey was not disciplined; in fact, he was later promoted.

Heard v. Westrock Company, Eastern District of Tennessee, No. 1:22-cv-132, December 6, 2022.

Key to Remember: Threatening to discipline an employee for seeking or using FMLA leave when the employee is clearly entitled interferes with FMLA rights.

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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