How Tyson Avoided a Legal FMLA Nightmare

Tyson Foods is a multinational poultry, beef, and pork products company based in Springdale, Arkansas. With a total of 122,000 employees in the U.S. alone, Tyson needs to have a robust and engaged HR department that can handle the procedural “ins and outs,” including FMLA leave guidelines. This article will highlight the colossal importance of having your FMLA policies and procedures in place through a lawsuit filed against Tyson Foods by a lawfully terminated employee. Also, how Tyson’s legal team was successfully able to defend themselves against the case because of their watertight FMLA processes.

This potential nightmare scenario revolved around an employee who needed to take intermittent leaves under FMLA leave guidelines. This employee worked for Tyson from July 2016 to March 2018. The employee’s psychiatrist stated that the employee could suffer episodes of anxiety and depression lasting four to five days each, once or twice every month or two for the next 12 months.  

Tyson approved the leave requests based on the certification from the employee’s psychiatrist. However, Tyson’s leave-of-absence policy required employees returning from FMLA or non-FMLA medical leave to provide a return-to-work certification from their health care provider, stating that they could resume working with or without reasonable restrictions.  

After returning to work from his 10-day leave under FMLA, his psychiatrist provided Tyson with a return-to-work certificate stating that his patient could return to work without any restrictions. Tyson then obliged further leave requests from this employee from September to December 2017.

This employee then took batches of intermittent leave in both December of 2017 and then subsequently in January and February 2018. The Tyson employee legally agreed to stay within the guidelines put in place by him, his psychiatrist, and the HR department. As per the agreement, intermittent leave would be allowed for episodes lasting four to five days, once or twice every one to two months on a yearly basis.

Unfortunately, from February 12th to March 5th of 2018, this Tyson employee called the company’s attendance hotline every morning, stating that he could not work. Subsequently, on March 6th, 2018this employee physically returned to Tyson after missing 16 consecutive workdays. He provided a psychiatrist’s note to excuse the absences, but the note failed to certify whether the employee could return to work without any restrictions. The HR supervisor requested an updated return-to-work certificate as per Tyson’s defined FMLA procedures. On the same day, the employee submitted a revised leave-of-absence application for the prior time off without proper dates. Tyson then demanded that the employee provide the required certification by March 21st, 2018.

Again, this employee continued to call in sick on the corporate hotline from March 7th to March 14th of 2018. The calls by the employee stopped on the 14th and the employee’s supervisors were unable to reach him at home after several attempts. This employee claimed that he had notified personnel at Tyson that, after several attempts on his part, he was unable to reach his psychiatrist. However, the employee could not recall who he specifically spoke to or what he had stated. On top of all this, the employee failed to return an FMLA certification by March 21st, 2018. Due to internal HR policies at Tyson, Tyson was well within its rights to terminate the employment of this employee. Tyson had explicitly stated in its internal documentation that three days of absence without notice was considered abandonment, and an employee could be terminated if the said employee did not return to work by the end of an approved leave of absence.

Claiming FMLA interference, along with a multitude of other claims, the ex-Tyson employee sued Tyson. The company’s legal arm, in conjunction with its HR department, was able to turn a quick summary judgment in the district court. The employee appealed and felt that he was entitled to not rectify his leave after the 16-day absence. He claimed that he was not outside the parameters of the agreed-upon certified segments to take leave twice per month in four-to five-day increments with up to 10 days per month.

In the end, the 8th Circuit Court sided with Tyson, reaffirming that the company’s recertification request was reasonable and within its legal rights. The ex-employee’s final leave of 16 consecutive days was well beyond the agreed upon leave increments of four-to five day chunks. Because Tyson’s HR department was on top of its FMLA rights, obligations, and procedures, the legal team for the corporation was able to win its case and avoid adverse publicity along with a possible massive payday for the ex-employee.

Not all organizations have the budgetary bandwidth or seamless HR FMLA processes that can be handed off to a top legal department. Sterling Administration can help you with different facets of FMLA and navigate you through various FMLA guidelines. Sterling will help you with all of the paperwork related to FMLA and can even answer FMLA questions either via call, chat, or email.

If you’d like to learn how to successfully implement protective internal FMLA procedures, please contact Sterling at this form or the number provided below. Around 80,000 users and 1200 companies are already using different products of Sterling to safeguard their organizations in a positive, protective, and impactful way.