$1.3 Million Jury Verdict on Disability Discrimination Claim Upheld by Supreme Judicial Court

For employers contending with an employee out on a medical leave take careful note:  don’t jump to conclusions.  Specifically, just because an employee goes on a planned vacation during the course of a medical leave does not automatically mean that there is underlying going on.

That was the message from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in upholding a $1.3 Million jury verdict in favor of a former employee who was terminated by his former employer.  In the case, the employee (a former Manager at the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority), went out on a medical leave of absence due to a medical procedure on his right foot (to remove a nerve tumor).  When the employee later sought to go out on a preplanned/annual vacation, and then later sought a second medical leave of absence to attend to a knee issue, he was terminated on the “honest belief” that the employee was abusing his need for medical leave (that if he could go out on a vacation, then he didn’t need to go out on a medical leave).

But in upholding the original jury verdict at the Trial Court level in favor of the former Manager, the SJC noted that “an employer may validly consider an employee’s conduct on vacation – or for that matter anywhere – that is inconsistent with his or her claimed reasons for medical, when the employer has such information at the time the employer is evaluating whether leave has been properly or improperly used.”  However, the SJC also pointed out that vacation and a medical could co-exist; noting that “an employee recovering from a leg injury may sit with his or her leg raised by the seashore while fully complying with FMLA leave requirements but may not climb Machu Picchu without abusing the FMLA process.”

(Daprato v. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority)