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Fired employee sues, says her medical leave request was ignored

Can you steal your co-worker's wallet, use her credit card, and then when you're caught and on the verge of being fired, can you request a medical leave for a mental disability that excuses what you did and makes your firing illegal? That's essentially what a former manager is arguing in her lawsuit against her former employer, a major university in a state other than Wisconsin. Included in her claim for disability discrimination and wrongful termination is the novel contention that the employer should have honored her request for a medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that she filed after the theft incident.

She claims to suffer acute anxiety disorder accompanied by dissociative episodes. She alleges that a dissociative state can be triggered by the death of someone close. She cites such an event in the death of her cousin just prior to the theft. This brought back memories of her father also dying of a heart attack and led to the dissociative state. 

She claims to remember nothing of the theft. Prior to termination, she sent the medical leave request for unpaid leave along with letters from two physicians explaining how this could occur under these circumstances. Additionally, there is some credibility in the story because she used the card to buy baby clothes even though she has no children. It was a nonsensical purchase consistent with a dissociative state of mind.

However, the university fired her prior to considering the medical leave request. She claims that she called the police herself and returned the card to the co-worker with full reimbursement. She requests her job back, lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful firing, disability discrimination, FMLA violations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Although the case at first blush appears to go too far under Wisconsin law and elsewhere, there's a strain of logic that may prevail. The employer arguably acted hastily in refusing to hear the medical leave request including the doctor's letters. The case could boil down to a determination by the fact-finder that it believes or doesn't believe her medical evidence of a controlling disability. Conversely, the case could be dismissed on a legal issue, such as her failure to give the employer advance notice of a disability.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Strange Day no Reason for Firing, Woman Says," Kevin Koeninger, July 26, 2013

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