What is the appropriate benefit scheme for an employee injured at work? Must you run multiple benefits schemes concurrently? The Appellate Court's recent unanimous ruling in Helen Monts v. Board of Education of the City of Hartford (AC 43856) provides answers to some of those questions and carries implications for employers and employees around requests for leave and claims of employer interference with leave requests.
Heather Monts, an executive secretary in the Hartford Public School District, suffered a workplace accident in September 2015. Monts reported the accident and was placed on modified work duty. Throughout the fall, she occasionally suffered flare-ups from her injury and would have to miss work.
During this time, Hartford Public Schools—following a longstanding policy—considered her absences covered by workers' compensation leave, as the injuries were workplace related, and not leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). Later, after two negative performance reviews in January and February of 2016, Monts was terminated on the “basis of poor job performance.” Monts subsequently sued the Board of Education.
At trial, Monts argued that the district had interfered with and retaliated against her for the protected activity of seeking FMLA leave for her injuries. The trial court refused to consider the FMLA claims and present them to a jury, arguing that there was no evidence “to support the claim that the plaintiff even made an FMLA request to the defendant.” Instead, the record suggested that the FMLA claim was not raised until after Monts' termination.
On appeal, Monts argued that the Court improperly ruled against her FMLA claims, suggesting instead that she need not “prove her intent” to bring an FMLA claim to have it considered. Monts sought to demonstrate that the FMLA and workers' compensation benefits should have run concurrently, even if an interest in FMLA was not explicitly expressed.
The Appellate Court rejected this argument, observing that an employee must make the initial indication to the employer—in other words, put them on notice—of their interest in FMLA benefits to later sustain a claim of interference. The Court found that Monts “did not satisfy the preliminary requirement” for the court to consider her claim and noticed that—even so—there was ample evidence that the workers' compensation scheme was more appropriate and, in fact, worked to her benefit compared with the FMLA.
Indeed, the Court stressed that central to an FMLA interference claim is an employee's action of notifying its employer. “There is nothing in the record to suggest that the plaintiff ever requested FMLA leave,” the court wrote, and “thus the defendant had no specific notice that she was interested in utilizing it.”
The case is an important reminder about the potential litigation issues that can arise when employer policies on leave are applied in practice. Employers—to avoid disputes about which benefits scheme is applied—should have a clear policy on both workers' compensation and FMLA benefits, specifying when they are utilized and how they interact with other potential benefits programs. Employees, meanwhile, must give proper notice in advance to their employer regarding any requested leave under the FMLA.
If you have questions about your FMLA and workers' compensation leave policies, or how to handle benefits litigation, please do not hesitate to consult with the experienced employment and labor law attorneys at Rose Kallor, LLP by calling 860.361.7999.