Exhaustion of FMLA Leave with No Return Date Dooms Plaintiff’s Claims

Garrett Wozniak
Garrett Wozniak
11/18/2013

In Owens v. Calhoun County School District, No. 12-60897 (Oct. 8, 2013), the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s granting of summary judgment to an employer on a former employee’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim.

Karen Darlene Mann Owens taught at Bruce Upper Elementary School in Mississippi for seventeen years until she was fired in February 2010.  Owens suffered from neck and back pain, conditions which worsened over the years.  In 2009, Owens took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Owens underwent surgery and was told that she could remain on leave until she received “her final x-rays.”

Owens was on leave when, on January 20, 2010, her school’s principal asked her when she would return to work.  Owens responded that she had a doctor’s appointment on February 12, 2010, and that she may be released to return to work on February 15, 2010.  As February 15th approached, the Calhoun County School Superintendent sent Owens a letter warning her that her FMLA leave was about to expire and requesting that she provide a return date so that Owens’ employment status could be determined.  Owens never provided a return date and instead referred to her upcoming doctor’s appointment.

Owens was terminated on February 9, 2010, for failing to return to work before her FMLA leave expired on February 1, 2010, and not providing a return date.  Owens filed suit claiming that her termination violated the FMLA, ADA, Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The court’s analysis regarding the ADA claim provides the interesting takeaway from this case.

On appeal, the School District contended that Owens was not capable of working when she was terminated and that the accommodations Owens requested were unreasonable and akin to indefinite leave.  Discussing whether the School District’s reasons for Owens’ termination were pretext, the Fifth Circuit concluded that “the record is replete with evidence that Owens was fired for reasons other than her disability.”

Importantly, Owens did not return to work before her FMLA leave expired and she failed to present evidence that she told the School District a date when she would return to work.  Merely informing her employer of an upcoming doctor’s appointment and speculative release to return to work date was not sufficient.

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