Charlene Wisbey was employed b y the City of Lincoln, Nebraska as an emergency dispatcher. The position required Wisbey to receive calls for emergency services and dispatch emergency service units on a regular basis. Because of the potential life-saving aspect of her position, the City Expected Wisbey to function accurately while working under considerable pressure and to think and act quickly and calmly in emergency situations.
During January-February, Wisbey used a significant amount of sick leave for an upper respiratory infection, for which she received a letter of warning. To avoid further discipline, the City recommended that Wisbey apply for intermittent FMLA leave, which she did. The medical certification supporting her request for intermittent FMLA leave cited recurring cycles of depression and anxiety that interfered with her sleep, energy level, motivation, and concentration. It also stated that Wisbey was unable to perform the essential functions of her job The certification concluded that Wisbey would need to take time off intermittently over the next 6 months or longer.
Concerned about her ability to perform her job as an emergency dispatcher, the City directed Wisbey to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam (FFD), which she did. The FFD concluded that Wisbey suffered from chronic relapsing depression which intermittently interfered wit her ability to function at full capacity at work, and that she was not fit for duty, especially regarding her ability to concentrate and her ongoing propensity to miss work. The City terminated Wisbey as unfit for duty. Wisbey filed suit alleging violations of the ADA and FMLA.
With respect to the ADA, the Court rejected Wisbey's argument that the City did not have a legitimate, non-discriminatory business necessity to require her to submit to the FFD. Citing a decision of the Second Circuit in Gajda v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Transit Operating Autho., 396 F.3d 187 (2d Cir. 2005), the Eighth Circuit agreed that representations made in an employee's FMLA medical certification that the employee is unable to perform the functions of his or her position may serve as a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for employer to require an FFD.
With respect to the FMLA, the Court rejected Wisbey's claim that the City interfered with her FMLA rights, noting that she was never denied FMLA leave. Significantly, quoting prior Eighth Circuit opinions, the Court noted that the FMLA "does not provide leave for leave's sake, but instead provides leave with an expectation an employee will return to work after the leave ends," Throneberry v. McGhee Desha County Hosp., 403 F.3d 972, 978 (8th Cir. 2005), and that "the FMLA doe snot provide an employee suffering from depression with a right to unscheduled and unpredictable, but cumulatively substantial, absences or a right to take unscheduled leave at a moment's notice for the rest of her career. On the contrary, such a situation implies that she is not qualified for a position where reliable attendance is a bona fide requirement." Spangler v. Fed. Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, 278 F.3d 847, 853 (8th Cir. 2002).
Because Wisbey requested "intermittent leave" for "six months or longer," the Court concluded that she did not have a right to FMLA leave. Without the right to FMLA leave, the City "could not have interfered with Wisbey's rights under the FMLA." The Court also rejected Wisbey's FMLA retaliation claim, finding that the decision to terminate her was not casually related to her request for FMLA leave a month before, but was due to the results of the FFD.
Comment: Long-term intermittent absences with little predictability or notice are the bane of employers who need employees present to get the work done. Of course, from the perspective of the employee who needs intermittent leave due to their own serious health condition or to care for a family member with a serious health condition, this is why the FMLA exits- to protect the employee from having to make a choice between their job and caring for their own or a family members medical needs.
For my money, the Eighth Circuit went too far by stating that an employee who needs intermittent FMLA leave for "6 months or more" somehow forfeits the right to take FMLA leave. The statement is flat out wrong. If an eligible employee meets all of the criteria, the FMLA affords the employee the right to take up to 12 weeks of intermittent FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, or the serious health condition of a covered family member, over the course of a 12-month leave year. Except perhaps in the Eighth Circuit, an employer that denied an eligible employee intermittent FMLA leave after six months - even though they have a certification stating that they needed intermittent leave for more than six months - relying on Wisbey would, in my estimation, interfere with that employee's FMLA rights. That could cost the employer big time in an FMLA interference suit.
What employers should take away from Wisbey is that an employee who needs intermittent FMLA leave long-term or forever may not be qualified for their position. Obviously, this will depend on the job duties of the position, including whether regular and predictable attendance is required. If they are not fit for the position because of their FMLA-covered condition, employers do not have to continue to employ the individual. The fact that, if employed, the individual would have the right to take intermittent FMLA leave is not controlling. Think of it this way: the FMLA entitles an employee to leave. If the same FMLA covered-condition that entitles an employee to take leave also interferes with the employees ability to adequately perform their job when they are at work, the FMLA does not protect the employee from discipline for poor performance for the job they did when at work.
Employers would be well-advised to proceed with caution in applying Wisbey. Other courts may be less quick to find that an employee needing intermittent FMLA leave is unfit for duty and, therefore, may be terminated -particularly where the employee has not exhausted his or her annual entitlement to FMLA leave.The decision is available at http://www.ca8.uscourts.gov/opns/opFrame.html