Riding the railways of FMLA and ADA

March 18, 2024

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By David Setzkorn, SVP, Workforce Absence and Disability Practice Leader

For anyone who has ever played the game ‘Monopoly’, collecting the four railroads is considered quite the achievement. But dealing with the tracks can be tricky — as noted by two cases that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear regarding railroads and both FMLA and ADA. 

Investigating an interference claim 

Our first case is in relation to an FMLA interference claim in Justin Adkins v. CSX Transportation, Inc. that was dismissed by the 4th circuit. In 2017, the employer began a series of furloughs to some of its employees. Over the next few weeks, 65 employees submitted claims for FMLA and medical leave for soft tissue injuries that were all approved by the same two chiropractors. The company suspected fraud because under the union agreement, employees who were furloughed with medical reasons were allowed to keep benefits for two years versus only four months for those who didn’t. Following an investigation, hearings were held per the union agreement and ultimately, the choice was to terminate these employees for violating workplace rules for dishonesty. 

When the plaintiff’s sued, they argued that the administrative process used under the collective bargaining agreement violated their rights under FMLA for multiple reasons. The courts disagreed because as they noted, in their opinion, the employer did not violate the employees’ rights because it had an honest belief that the employees were seeking leave for an improper purpose. The court also noted that while the plaintiff’s argued that the reason they were fired was based on CSX Transportation’s suspicion that there was foul play, the suspicion was enough to warrant the employers honest belief that the leave claims were not legitimate based on the volume of claims and the timing in which they were submitted. 

Reasonable accommodations in review 

Our second case also deals with the railroads and reasonable accommodations under ADA. The case, Hopman v. Union Pac. R.R. involves a conductor who sued over a denied accommodation request to have his service dog accompany him in the train cab to help with flashbacks, migraines and other PTSD symptoms related to his service in the military. Initially, the trial court found for the employee and awarded him $250,000. This award was vacated by the judge and validated by the Eight Circuit who noted that the accommodation request by Hopman wasn’t covered by ADA because he was seeking to manage the worst of his symptoms of his disabilities while at work. The trial judge noted that ADA doesn’t define reasonable accommodation and that accommodations are not required to provide freedom from psychological or mental pain as a job benefit.

The court noted that the employee could still perform the essential functions of his job without his service animal present. In addition, the court agreed with the company’s position that having a service dog aboard a train would be unsafe and inconsistent with federal safety regulations.

While neither plaintiff was successful, it does offer some insights into the courts thinking about how employers should approach concerns with leaves and or accommodation requests. If an employer has reason to doubt the validity of a claim, the best course of action is to investigate and document those suspicions. In the CSX case, the terminations were because of company policies surrounding dishonesty in applying for what the company felt was illegitimate leave. They based this on the fact that the same two doctors sent in virtually identical paperwork for the plaintiffs and then held hearings for each employee to document their concerns before a course of action was taken. 

Decision making 

The ADA case also affirmed the courts belief that just because an employee feels that a request is reasonable and can help them manage their job, its ultimately up to the employer to make that determination. Given that ADA doesn’t truly define reasonable accommodation but rather provides examples, employers should note that it is better to ensure that you have a process in place to validate where the employee can perform the functions of the job with or without an accommodation. 

The key in both cases was properly documenting and following a process before any employment decisions or actions are taken. Failure to do so could mean that you wind up in court defending your circumstance and find yourself on the losing end to an opponent who has successfully captured all four railroads. Just like in Monopoly, this situation could wind up costing you the game. 

Learn more > Explore our disability and absence management flyer.

Tags: Absence, Absence management, Accomodation, ADA, Disability, Disability and leave, FMLA, Helping people, Investigation, leave of absence, Supreme Court, transportation, workforce absence