By Anne-Marie L. Storey, Esq.

A new case from the Sixth Circuit is a dramatic illustration of what can happen if an employer incorrectly applies the FMLA to an employee who was not ever eligible for that benefit.  In this case, the employee had various disputes with his supervisor and ultimately went out of work with a potential heart attack before completing a job assignment.  He was admitted to the hospital overnight, then discharged.  His wife informed the employer that he would not be able to return to work for several days.  The employer sent FMLA paperwork to the employee, telling him in the cover letter that he was “eligible for FMLA leave” and that it was important to utilize FMLA leave during his time off.   The employer also provided him with the federal Eligibility Notice, which had checked the box informing him that he was eligible for FMLA leave.  Notably, the form did NOT check the box that stated he was not eligible because the employer had fewer than the required number of employees to be covered.  The Notice informed the employee that he needed to submit the medical certification to support his request for FMLA leave.

The employer then sent a letter to the employee terminating his employment on the basis that he had not performed his required job assignment and for various other reasons.  The employee filed suit based on several employment laws, including the FMLA, contending his employer interfered with his right to take the leave and retaliated against him for doing so when it terminated his employment.   The employer filed for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that he was not an eligible employee because the employer did not have the required number of employees for his location.  The employee argued the employer was equitably stopped from denying the FMLA eligibility.  The district court rejected that argument.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that although it was true that the employee was not eligible for FMLA benefits, there was at least a  material factual dispute as to whether the employer was equitably estopped from providing those benefits.   The employee’s argument was based largely on a statement in the handbook that he argued was a “clear misrepresentation” about his FMLA eligibility.  The handbook stated that it was a guide “to basic benefits, working conditions and policies” and contained the following language:  “Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.”  There was no mention of any requirement that the employees would only be covered if they worked at, or within 75 miles of, a site at which the employer employed at least 50 employees.  Despite all of the employer’s best arguments to the contrary, this was a sufficient basis for the court to determine that there was enough of a factual issue about whether the employee relied on the statement that the case could proceed to a jury trial.

This case is a very poignant reminder that all employers should review their handbook language on a regular basis to ensure that it is accurate in terms of benefits provided and potential exceptions or exclusions to eligibility for those benefits (or at least to pay enough attention to the Notices before sending to the employee!).

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