An employee’s request, supported by adequate medical certification, that he or she should be allowed more frequent breaks while at work due to his or her medical condition has proved difficult for courts to analyze. A recent decision by a federal court in Texas examined that issue and determined that such at-work breaks are not the type of “leave” protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The plaintiff in Das v. American Airlines, Inc. suffered from Crohn’s Disease. He took a month of FMLA leave after his diagnosis and, upon his return to work, experienced symptoms which forced him to take more frequent rest breaks while at work. Additionally, those breaks were longer than usual, because Das used a sitz bath and applied medication and bandages after relieving himself. When he was terminated, supposedly as a part of a reduction-in-force, he filed charges and, subsequently, a lawsuit, alleging that the stated reason for his discharge was pretextual.
More specifically, Das claimed that frequent restroom breaks for an extended period to engage in medical treatments constituted an activity protected by the FMLA. However, the District Court found that periodic time spent at work, but away from the employee’s immediate work area, is distinct from FMLA-protected time away from the place of work. It further noted that frequent trips to the bathroom while at work do not constitute periods of incapacity for which an employee must be absent from the workplace, so the FMLA is not triggered.
While this decision is instructive with respect to claims filed under the FMLA, it is noticeable that the District Court did not analyze it under the protections for disabilities provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It should further be noted that different courts in different federal circuits within the United States (there are 12 in all) have engaged in slightly different analyses of the issue of coverage of more frequent rest breaks under the FMLA and the ADA. Employers who receive requests for breaks which would not cause the employee to be absent from company premises should take care to examine decisions of federal and state courts in their geographical area.