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Alleged Exacerbation of Medical Condition Not Actionable Under FMLA

    Client Alerts
  • September 23, 2011

The Family and Medical Leave Act prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who takes job-protected absences from work. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the FMLA's anti-retaliation protections do not extend to claims by an employee that stress experienced as a result of the employer's displeasure with leave taken resulted in a compensable deterioration of his medical condition.

In Breneisen v. Motorola Inc., the plaintiff took 12 weeks of FMLA leave, and a subsequent non-FMLA medical leave for treatment of gastroesophageal reflux. After the first leave, he was informed that his position had been eliminated, and was reinstated to a different job at the same pay rate. Following the second leave, the plaintiff's medical condition worsened, requiring surgery that permanently disabled him from returning to work. He did not claim that his termination was in violation of the FMLA, but alleged that his medical condition worsened due to his supervisor's treatment. The plaintiff sued, alleging entitlement to front pay damages extending beyond his departure from employment.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of this claim on summary judgment. The court concluded that the FMLA does not address the cause of an employee's injury. Employees are protected from work-related aspects of retaliation by their employers, but once FMLA leave expires, the employee is not entitled to relief based on subsequent medical issues.

Even if the FMLA allowed compensation for exacerbation of a medical condition, in this case the plaintiff's claims of harassment related to events following his second, non-FMLA absence. While he could conceivably file a Workers' Compensation claim based on the alleged injury, the FMLA cannot be used to circumvent the normal bar on personal injury claims from employees alleging they suffered harm at work.