Law Briefs

Employees covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act don’t have to be receiving medical treatment for severe morning sickness to have the condition covered under FMLA guidelines, according to a recent court decision.

The FMLA mandates that employees who need to take a leave from work because of a “serious health condition,” such as the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a child, spouse or parent who has a serious health condition, are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and reinstatement to their pre-leave, or an equivalent, position.

The FMLA regulations treat pregnancy-related conditions differently from other serious health conditions in a number of respects. For example, unlike employees suffering from other serious health conditions, employees who miss work because of severe morning sickness qualify for FMLA leave even though the employee doesn’t receive treatment from a health care provider during the absence—as long as the absence doesn’t last more than three days.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., recently recognized the validity of these regulations. In that case, an employee of Xerox Corp. who was pregnant and alleged that she was absent from work because of severe morning sickness, sued under the FMLA arguing that her employer terminated her for taking FMLA-qualifying leave.

In support of its motion to attempt to have the case dismissed, Xerox argued that the employee failed to offer any evidence that her morning sickness prevented her from performing her job. The court held that, absent an employer’s request for a medical certification, an employee suffering from severe morning sickness is not obligated to seek out medical treatment for her condition to be covered by the FMLA.

In Riggio v. Medical College of Pennsylvania, the Superior Court ruled that any direct receipt of public funds makes an entity a “public body.” Thus, the defendant hospital, which admitted to receiving appropriations from the Commonwealth, was found to be subject to potential liability under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law.

The Whistleblower Law prohibits retaliation against employees of a “public body” who make good-faith reports to their employers or appropriate authorities about instances of waste or wrongdoing. The term “public body” is defined expansively in the Whistleblower statute to include any entity “which is funded in any amount by or through Commonwealth or political subdivision authority.”

In the past, other courts had been giving a more narrow interpretation to the term, applying it only to recipients of government funds appropriated to aid a public body in pursuit of public goals. The court in the Riggio case, however, took a plain-language approach and interpreted the statute more broadly.

Although the defendant hospital was covered by the Whistleblower Law as a “public body,” it prevailed against the plaintiff employee’s claim because she failed to establish that she complained about a “wrongdoing” in violation of a statute, regulation or code of conduct or ethics.

While the Superior Court made it clear that an entity is covered by the Whistleblower Law if it receives any funding directly from the state, the Riggio decision leaves open the issue of whether the receipt by health care organizations or other businesses of monies in the form of grants, reimbursements or even tax breaks constitutes funding by or through the Commonwealth.

In any event, business owners should consult their attorneys before terminating employees who have complained about waste or wrongdoing within the company.

William E. Adams is an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, a national law firm based in Pittsburgh.

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