‘Catch 22’ in FMLA Case

No Way Worker Could Win?

Remember Catch 22, the problem with no solution due to obtuse and cyclical reasoning?

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri has issued a “Catch 22” opinion in denying legal relief to a welder who was fired after her employer forced her to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) even though she was healthy.

Trinity Marine Products, Inc. forced the welder, Tracy Walker, to take FMLA leave to get a doctor’s opinion about whether she had a serious medical condition. The doctor said she did not have a serious medical condition and was fit to work. Then Trinity required Walker to get a second opinion from a another doctor, who agreed with the first doctor and said Walker was fit for work . Then Trinity instructed Walker to consult a physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The Vanderbilt physician sent Walker a letter in which he agreed that Walker had no serious medical condition and was able to return to work without restrictions. Walker presented the letter to Trinity on Sept. 8, 2009 whereupon Trinity fired Walker on the grounds that she had exhausted her FMLA leave in August 2009.

Walker sued, alleging that Trinity interfered with her rights under the FMLA by placing her on involuntary FMLA leave even though she was healthy and then refusing to permit her to return to work. Trinity responded that Walker could not seek relief under the FMLA because “she never suffered a serious health condition that entitled her to take FMLA leave in the first place.”

The appeals court agreed with Trinity’s cyclical logic. The court said the FMLA prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining or denying an employee’s exercise or or attempt to exercise rights under the statute. However, the Court states:

“… Walker admits that she never suffered a serious health condition within the meaning of the Act, [so] we conclude that she has no right to the benefits provided by the FMLA.”

Walker also raised the issue of  fairness, claiming that Trinity treated her as having a serious health condition and it is only fair that Trinity should be bound by that designation.

The appeal scourt denied the equitable claim, finding that Walker did not demonstrate she suffered monetary losses as a result of Trinity’s alleged interference with her FMLA rights. The court rejected Walker’s argument that she was required to travel to go to numerous medical examinations at Trinity’s insistence.  According to the court: 

“Trinity’s mistaken belief that Walker suffered a serious health condition could not entitle Walker to the benefits of the FMLA.” 

So Walker’s case has been thrown out of court, without ever reaching a jury.

The term Catch 22 is derived from  a 1961book  about the insanity of war by author Joseph Heller.  Here’s the passage:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle..”