A federal district court has upheld an employer’s restrictions on employee travel while on medical leave, affirming that employers can take reasonable steps to ensure that leave is used for its intended purpose. Pellegrino v. Communications Workers of America, Civ. No. 10-0098 (W.D. PA. May 18, 2011).
The Communications Workers of America provided its employees a wage replacement program which ran concurrently with FMLA leave. When receiving wage replacement, employees had to remain in the “immediate vicinity of their homes” except to receive medical treatment or to attend “ordinary and necessary activities directly related to personal or family needs,” according to the court. An employee wanting to leave the immediate vicinity of her home needed the CWA’s written permission to travel.
Two weeks into her FMLA leave for surgery, plaintiff went to Cancun, Mexico for a week. She had not sought permission to travel or request vacation for the trip. The CWA terminateded her for traveling to Cancun while on FMLA and disability leave in violation of CWA’s leave policies and work rules.
Plaintiff sued the CWA, claiming that it interfered with her right to FMLA by terminating her employment. After the lawsuit had begun, plaintiff’s physician submitted a letter stating that plaintiff was not able to return to work until weeks after she had returned from Cancun and that her trip to Cancun “was not inconsistent with her recovery or with any medical restrictions placed on her during that time,” according to the court.
The court upheld the wage replacement restrictions and granted the CWA summary judgment. Citing Third Circuit precedent, the court held that “there is no right in the FMLA to be left alone. Nothing in the FMLA prevents employers from ensuring that employees who are on leave from work do not abuse their leave…”
This is the latest of a handful of cases upholding the right of employers to impose restrictions to make sure medical leave, including FMLA, is not abused. Employers seeking to actively manage FMLA to prevent abuse should consider the lessons from these cases.