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No, FMLA does not include the death of a pet--for now

Sometimes, it is necessary for an employee to take time off to care for a relative who is ill or to mourn a deceased family member. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers can take unpaid time off to care for their family without fear of being fired. But what if an employee considers their pet--perhaps a dog or cat--to be a family member? In this case, is an employee allowed to use FMLA to care for their furry friend?

The question may seem fanciful, but it was actually the subject of a recent lawsuit and court ruling. A Wisconsin man sued his employer after being fired for missing several days of work after his dog died. The court's decision may have implications for the FMLA, employers and pet-lovers.

Buck v. Mercury Marine

In the case of Buck v. Mercury Marine (E.D. Wisc. 12/22/17), a machinist in Wisconsin was so upset after putting his beloved dog to sleep that his employer granted him a day of vacation time. After his day off, the employee still did not return, explaining that he had struggled with insomnia and was unable to work. He was treated for situational insomnia at a hospital, where a nurse signed a note to present to his supervisors. But over the next three months, the man accumulated several unexcused absences, which he claimed were due to his insomnia. When his employer terminated him, the worker filed a lawsuit under FMLA.

FMLA, illness and pets

The suit was heard by a Wisconsin district court, which dismissed the plaintiff's claim. The court stated that the man failed to demonstrate that his insomnia following the dog's death was a serious health condition as defined by the FMLA. However, the court did note that lack of sleep caused by the illness or death of a pet could technically qualify for FMLA leave. For employers, this means that an employee's pet could be the cause of an FMLA-covered illness, but the employee must have adequate evidence to show that they qualify for FMLA.

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