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At the Intersection of FMLA and Workers Compensation: Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, Inc.

5/11/21

By: Tia Combs

The Eleventh Circuit recently weighed in on how the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and state law workers compensation schemes interact in Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, LLC, No. 19-13461, 2021 WL 1257247 (11th Cir. April 6, 2021). In doing so, the Court reinforced that workers compensation is not a substitute for FMLA.

The Plaintiff, Ramji, was a housekeeper at a hospital in Snellville, Georgia for over eleven years. In 2013, her job was subsumed by Hospital Housekeeping when it took over cleaning responsibilities at her hospital.

In late 2016, Ramji suffered a knee injury when she tripped as she was getting ready to clock out for her shift. Hospital Housekeeping handled the injury as a workers compensation issue. Ramji received some treatment, including a cortisone shot just over a week after the accident and a recommendation for physical therapy. Eight days after the accident, Ramji was released to light duty and accepted a light duty position with Hospital Housekeeping.

However, before Ramji could start her light duty assignment, she was forced to complete a fitness for duty test (the Essential Skills Test or “EST”). As Ramji was attempting the EST, she complained that her knee was beginning to hurt and that she could not complete the test. She requested to use sick time to fully recover and retake the test at a later date. Her request was denied and, after Hospital Housekeeping docked her for a couple of old infractions in addition to the failure of the EST, Ramji was fired. Now out of a job and unable to get needed treatment, Ramji sought out a workers compensation attorney.  Her case settled for further medical treatment and reinstatement.

Ramji then filed this case for interference with her FMLA rights. While Hospital Housekeeping did win summary judgment at the district court, the Eleventh Circuit has reversed that holding and, in the process, given employers some helpful insights on how workers compensation and FMLA interact.

Initially, the Eleventh Circuit held that while Ramji had not expressly requested FMLA leave, she still had given notice to Hospital Housekeeping that she needed it.  The Court pointed to the oversight of the workers’ compensation program by Hospital Housekeeping which mandated that Ramji’s supervisor accompany her to medical treatment appointments, the company’s receipt of her workers compensation forms detailing her injury, and the company’s notice of her time off work for the injury.

Then, the Court turned its attention to whether Ramji had been denied a benefit due under FMLA. The Court noted that Hospital Housekeeping should have had notice of Ramji’s possible entitlement to FMLA benefits when the company received her workers compensation forms and provided her with eligibility notice at that time. Hospital Housekeeping attempted to argue that Ramji was not entitled to notice of her FMLA rights as the matter was handled through workers compensation and Ramji accepted a light duty assignment. The Eleventh Circuit was not impressed with these arguments. The Court pointed out that FMLA itself gives employers the option of running FMLA and workers compensation concurrently; clearly demonstrating that workers compensation benefits do not preclude FMLA. The Eleventh Circuit similarly noted that FMLA also states that a job with reasonable accommodations does not preclude FMLA entitlement. The Court held that Hospital Housekeeping’s arguments were squarely contradicted by the FMLA.

Finally, Hospital Housekeeping argued that Ramji was not harmed by a denial of FMLA leave as her full treatment record showed that she did not reach full recovery within the twelve weeks she could have received under the Act. However, the Court noted that if Ramji had received a full and uninterrupted twelve weeks of recovery, she might have had a quicker recovery and been ready to return to work in twelve weeks or less. The Court held this was an issue of material fact preventing Hospital Housekeeping from preserving its district court summary judgment.

So, what lessons can employers glean from this case:

  1. No amount of workers compensation benefits are a substitute for FMLA leave. Even employees who qualify and receive workers compensation benefits must be offered FMLA if circumstances otherwise dictate this is appropriate.
  2. The same principal is true for light duty. Even an employee who agrees to a light duty assignment, must be offered benefits under FMLA if he or she is otherwise entitled to it.

For more information about this topic, please contact Tia Combs at [email protected].