In an unpublished opinion issued on October 8, 2013, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment in favor of an employer on a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The interesting – and somewhat unexpected – basis of the decision was the fact that the plaintiff/employee’s termination was based upon her failure to return from a medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in a timely manner. Owens v. Calhoun County School District, 5th Cir., No. 12-60897, October 8, 2013.

Most employers are hesitant to tackle the overlap between the ADA and the FMLA, based upon the differing legal standards between the two. To support a valid FMLA claim, a plaintiff typically must show a serious health condition; for an ADA claim, the standard is showing a disability that substantially limits a major life activity. The challenge for employers is the situation in which an individual is on FMLA leave with an impairment significant enough to constitute a disability for purposes of the ADA. In those cases, the employer must review and document carefully its reasons for any decision related to the employee’s return from leave, including termination of employment before any need for accommodation has been discussed.

Karen Darlene Mann Owens taught at Bruce Upper Elementary School, part of the Calhoun County, Mississippi School District (Calhoun County) for 17 years until her employment termination on February 9, 2010. For a number of years prior to her firing, Owens suffered from back and neck pain. On October 19, 2009, Owens underwent surgery on her neck and back, following which she took a leave of absence under the FMLA.

On January 20, 2010, the school principal (Monaghan) asked Owens when she would be returning to work, to which Owens replied that she had a doctor’s appointment on February 12, 2010, and would have more information at that time.

After that discussion, Calhoun County’s superintendent (Moore) sent a letter to Owens, warning her that her FMLA would soon expire and requesting that Owens provide a return to work date so that her employment status could be determined. Moore followed that letter with a phone call in which he asked Owens to provide a return to work date. Owens did not provide a date, but again stated that she had a doctor’s appointment on or about February 12.

On February 9, 2010, Moore sent a letter to Owens terminating her employment for failing to return to work before her FMLA leave expired on February 1, and for failing to provide any return to work date.

Owens unsuccessfully appealed that firing to the Calhoun County school board; she then filed a lawsuit alleging violation of the ADA, the Age Discrimination, and the FMLA, along with a state law breach of contract claim and claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution (related to statements that she had made in an attempt to secure educational support for her son). After dismissal of all of her claims, and following a series of procedural issues, Owens appealed only the dismissal of her ADA claim and her First Amendment retaliation claim to the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of Owens’ First Amendment claim, based on the fact that such a claim requires speech related to a “matter of public concern,” and Owens alleged simply that she was terminated for attempting to seek educational support for her son, a private matter.

The Fifth Circuit also upheld the dismissal of Owens’ ADA claim on the basis that Owens failed to provide evidence that the school district’s reason for her termination (failure to provide a return to work date after her FMLA leave) was a pretext for disability discrimination. To the contrary, said the Court, the record was “replete with evidence that Owens was fired for reasons other than her disability,” including the fact that Owens admitted that she had failed to return to work at the expiration of her FMLA leave and, more importantly, failed to provide a date on which she would return to work or any documentation that she was cleared to return to work by her doctor at any point.

Ultimately, Owens was unable to present any evidence that the school district’s reason for her termination was a pretext for disability discrimination. The school district’s documentation of its communications to Owens informing her of the expiration of her FMLA leave and attempting to obtain from Owens a return to work date led to its success in this matter. The importance of clear, contemporaneous, and objective documentation cannot be overstated, and formed the basis of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in this case.