Vol. 13, Ed. 3: Poorly Drafted FMLA Policy Allows Employee’s FMLA Claim to Proceed

Written by vantagelegal on . Posted in

In Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even though the employee did not meet the eligibility criteria for Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave, the employee’s FMLA claim was allowed to proceed because the employer’s FMLA policy led employees to erroneously believe that they met the threshold requirements under the law.

Background

Terry Tilley (“Tilley”) worked for the Kalamazoo County Road Commission (“Road Commission”). On August 1, 2011, he was absent from work and admitted to the hospital for observation following a potential heart attack. On August 9, the Road Commission mailed him FMLA paperwork. The cover letter and the eligibility notice informed Tilley that he was eligible for FMLA leave and requested medical certification from his doctor to support his request for FMLA leave. Further, the Road Commission’s employee handbook included an FMLA policy, which stated that, “Employees covered under the FMLA are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.” On August 12, Tilley was terminated for job performance issues that arose immediately before his leave. The Road Commission indicated that Tilley failed to complete three specific job assignments by a certain date, pursuant to a final written warning. The due date for the last assignment was August 1, the first day Tilley was absent from work.

The Case

Tilley sued the Road Commission for FMLA interference and retaliation. The Road Commission argued that Tilley was not eligible for FMLA leave. The District Court agreed with the Commission.

Under the FMLA, employees are eligible to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons if the employee:

  • Is employed by the employer for at least 12 months
  • Works 1,250 hours during the 12 month period preceding the start of the requested leave
  • Works at a location where the employer employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius

The District Court ruled that Tilley did not meet the third prong of this test because the Commission employed less than 50 employees.

Tilley appealed the decision of the District Court on the basis of equitable estoppel.

To prove equitable estoppel, Tilley needed to show:

  • A definite misrepresentation of a material fact
  • A reasonable reliance on the misrepresentation and
  • A resulting detriment to the party reasonably relying on the misrepresentation

Tilley stated that he believed he was eligible for FMLA leave because of the unambiguous written policy in the handbook and that if he understood he was not eligible for FMLA leave, he would not have sought medical treatment.

The Commission argued that the written FMLA policy in the handbook is not a sufficient misrepresentation. The Commission contended that under the FMLA’s implementing regulations, a covered employer is required to provide some type of FMLA notice to all employees, even if it has no eligible employees.

The Sixth Circuit Court agreed with Tilley and reversed the decision of the District Court. The Court reasoned that the language in the employee handbook was a definite misrepresentation of material fact and found that the Commission should have added the employee threshold requirement to its FMLA policy, so that a reasonable person in the Tilley’s position would not believe that they were protected by the FMLA. The Court further found that Tilley relied on the misrepresentation to his detriment.

The Court also found that the Commission’s reliance on the regulations misplaced. The Court specified that the regulations do not require employers to make statements (like in the Commission’s handbook) that lead employees to believe that they are eligible to seek FMLA benefits irrespective of the FMLA’s employee threshold requirement. While the Sixth Circuit agreed that Tilley was not an eligible employee under the FMLA, it found that the Commission could not raise non-eligibility as a defense to equitable estoppel.

Impact on Employers

While this particular case only applies to Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan, it presents a widespread message to employers. In order to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation, employers should first understand whether they have employees who are eligible for FMLA protection and, if not, whether they desire to offer similar protection to any or all employees. After this business decision is made, employers should review their written FMLA policies, ensure that they accurately and completely capture all applicable requirements, and provide training to all employees on who is elible and under what circumstances.

If you have any questions about the Sixth Circuit’s ruling,  please contact Vanessa L. Smith, Esq. or another of Vantage Legal’s attorneys at 312.440.0602.

The information contained in this publication is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.  Use of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.  For advice about a particular problem or situation, please contact an advisor of your choice.  This publication is not intended to solicit legal business; however, it may be considered attorney advertising in some states.  For more information, please contact Vanessa L. Smith, Esq., Managing Counsel, Vantage Legal, P.C., 430 West Erie St, Suite 303, Chicago, Illinois 60654.