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Employer learns $1.3 million FMLA lesson

They say that one of the best ways to become wiser is to learn from your mistakes. If that's so, then an employer that made the mistake of firing its IT manager after he took a vacation to Mexico while on medical leave is much, much wiser today.

In fact, the public utility company that fired the IT manager is $1.3 million wiser after a recent court decision in his lawsuit over retaliatory termination that violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Here's how this case unfolded: The veteran IT manager initially scheduled knee surgery, but told HR that he was postponing that to first have an operation to remove a tumor from his right foot. His surgeon confirmed that the manager would need four to six weeks of medical leave for recuperation.

After the surgery, he went on a previously scheduled vacation to Mexico - a trip he made every year - limiting his activities to protect his healing foot.

The employee then emailed an HR representative, mentioning the anticipated need for medical leave for his scheduled knee surgery.

That same day, HR learned that the employee was on his annual trip to Mexico. The director of HR was outraged, according to internal emails, and an investigation was launched to determine if the man was abusing FMLA.

The verdict of the investigation was to fire him for FMLA abuse.

At trial, the HR director said that an employee on medical leave could not go on vacation.

The court decided that the director was wrong, noting that a person can recover from surgery while sitting with their ailing foot propped up in a warm climate as well as a cold one. Simply being in Mexico was not an indication that he had abused FMLA. The employer needed evidence that he had engaged in activities that indicate abuse. Mountain-climbing, for instance.

Because HR had no such evidence, they relied instead on "shock, outrage and offense" over his time in Mexico and the fact that he had an impending knee surgery.

The court let stand the earlier decision by a jury, which included more than $700,000 in punitive damages and $200,000 for emotional distress inflicted on the IT manager, as well as back pay and $188,000 in front pay. His attorney's fees also have to be paid by his former employer.

A financially painful lesson for the employer, to be sure.

If you have been denied your rights under Wisconsin's Family and Medical Leave Act or the federal FMLA, contact the Milwaukee law offices of Alan C. Olson and Associates to speak to an attorney who can protect your rights and career in employment law litigation.

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