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Mistaken FMLA eligibility notice supports worker’s lawsuit, court rules

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Dive Brief:

  • Engineering and environmental consulting firm McCormick Taylor can’t dodge a lawsuit alleging it misrepresented an employee’s eligibility for Family and Medical Leave Act leave, a federal district court held July 3 in Roberts v. McCormick Taylor.
  • During the onboarding process, a new hire disclosed her Crohn’s disease and said she was scheduled to start treatment requiring intermittent leave, according to court documents. A company vice president allegedly assured her she was eligible for FMLA leave, and the company approved her application for intermittent FMLA leave, the lawsuit claimed. Thereafter, on one occasion, her supervisor approved her request for FMLA leave for the rest of the day off after her impairment flared up, but the vice president allegedly required her to attend a meeting instead. He later fired her, citing “business hardship,” although she claimed she was the only employee terminated. She sued the company for interfering with her FMLA rights and retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave.
  • A federal district court in Pennsylvania refused to dismiss the case. It noted that employee wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave because she hadn’t worked the requisite 12 months when she was fired. But the case could proceed under the doctrine of equitable estoppel, which provides “a means of redress for employees who detrimentally rely on their employers’ misrepresentations about FMLA eligibility,” the court held. The employee adequately alleged equitable estoppel, it said: She claimed she could have altered her treatment plan to accommodate her work schedule had the company not mistakenly provided her with FMLA leave.

Dive Insight:

The FMLA provides eligible employees of covered employers with job-protected leave for qualifying family and medical leave reasons, a U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet states.

To be FMLA-eligible, employees must work for a covered employer for at least 12 months; have at least 1,250 hours of service with the employer during the 12 months before their FMLA leave starts; and work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles, the fact sheet explains.

The law’s allowance for intermittent leave often poses tracking and staffing challenges for employers. And managers who make clear they’re unhappy about an employee taking FMLA leave or exercising other rights can create added issues, attorneys say.

For example, in a 2018 ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed an employee who was fired two weeks after filing a workers’ comp claim to pursue a retaliation lawsuit based on his manager’s repeated comments expressing doubt about his injury and calling his restrictions “self-imposed.”

The employee in McCormick alleged that on the occasion her disease flared-up and the vice president required her to stay at work, he chastised her for taking FMLA leave, stating, “We didn’t sign up for this.”

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