9-13-11; Claimant’s claim work-related stress caused tummy ulcers which under FMLA were hard for the Federal Courts to “digest” and dismissal affirmed

Our Federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals falls in line with other federal circuits on FMLA. In doing so, the Court defines limits to liability under FMLA protections and offers the rather elementary observation a claimant must be entitled to FMLA leave in order to establish a cause of action under the Statute. In Breneisen and Lineweaver, v. Motorola, Inc. (2011 WL 3873771, 7th Circuit, Sept. 2d 2011), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal, finding Plaintiff failed to establish a wrongful discharge claim arising out of the stress imparted by his supervisors, since his FMLA leave was already exhausted earlier in the year.

Plaintiff Breneisen was employed at various Motorola facilities and took FMLA leave to receive treatment for gastroesophageal reflux. He returned to work twelve weeks later and was assigned to a different position, allegedly because his position had been eliminated during his leave and his former duties had been dispersed among several other positions. He received the same pay and benefits, but personally considered the change a demotion.

On April 20, 2001, just weeks after returning to work, Plaintiff Breneisen took medical leave again, this time for esophageal surgery. He returned to work in September 2001, but in February 2002, he took leave for a third time to undergo a total esophagectomy. 0Breneisen never returned from this leave and was eventually terminated in June 2003. He alleges the esophagectomy was necessary because a supervisor at Motorola caused him to suffer stress, high blood pressure, and stomach reflux, all of which exacerbated his pre-existing medical condition.

The crux of Breneisen's argument is the alleged mistreatment he received from his supervisor at Motorola upon returning from his second leave in September 2001 exacerbated his pre-existing condition and caused him to take the third leave, from which he never returned. He asserted the evidence the District Court excluded was offered to prove this alleged causal link.

In the Court’s analysis, our Seventh Circuit turned to a similar case from the Sixth Circuit, where they ruled FMLA does not address the cause of an employee's injury. Edgar, 443 F.3d at 516. Our Seventh Circuit agreed the cause of an injury was irrelevant under the FMLA, although the Court commented the cause of an injury would be relevant to a claim based in tort law, noting Breneisen already filed an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The Court already affirmed summary judgment in favor of Motorola on that claim when the case first came before them in 2008.

The Federal Appellate Court went on to point out that, even if the cause of an employee's medical condition were relevant under the FMLA, it would not be relevant in Plaintiff Breneisen's case, since the exacerbating conduct he alleges occurred after a second, unprotected leave. There seems to be no dispute Defendant Motorola fully complied with the requirements of the FMLA during and immediately following Breneisen's first leave. At the end of that leave, his entitlement to twelve weeks of leave per year for a qualifying condition had been exhausted.

In April 2001, Motorola again allowed him to take leave; when he returned to work five months later, the company reinstated him. His second reinstatement did not occur because the FMLA required it; rather, it appears to have been a courtesy extended to a long-standing and veteran employee. Although his second leave may have been “approved,” an employer's approval of extra leave time has no bearing on the established parameters of taking leave pursuant to the FMLA. Since the retaliatory conduct which Plaintiff Breneisen alleges occurred happened when he was no longer subject to the FMLA's clearly defined protections, he was not entitled to recovery for an alleged FMLA violation.

The Court also commented “stress can adversely affect many common ailments from which physically infirm employees suffer, granting relief on this basis would contravene the straightforward premise of the FMLA—to protect employees from adverse actions by their employers during finite periods when short-term personal or family medical needs require it”. When serious medical issues render an employee unable to work for longer than the twelve-week period contemplated under the statute, the FMLA no longer applies. This is true regardless of the cause of the infirmity.

This article was researched and written by John P. Campbell, Jr., J.D. Please feel free to contact John directly at jcampbell@keefe-law.com.