New Cases Concerning Family Medical Leave

Three recent rulings focus on key issues

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) concerns when an employee can take extended time off from work. Three new cases point out the need for both employers and employees to understand the rules.

Background: Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or a child with a serious health condition. This law generally applies to all public employers, and private employers with 50 or more employees.

To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must work for a covered employer and must

  • have worked for that employer for at least 12 months;
  • have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of the FMLA leave; and
  • be working at, or within 75 miles of, a location where at least 50 people are employed.

For instance, a covered employer must grant an eligible employee up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for the following events: birth of a child and to care for the newborn; adoption or fostering of a child and to care for the newly placed adopted or foster child; the need to care for an immediate family member (i.e., a spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition; or the employee’s inability to work because of a serious health condition.

These guidelines are relatively clear, but FMLA matters often are still contested in the courts.

New case #1: A security guard took leave from his job when his wife fell ill. Upon his return, however, the employer questioned whether he was actually married. The security guard provided proof but was fired anyway. He sued two years later. Result: The employer argued that the legal action was filed too late, but the court ruled that the complaint had been properly lodged within the three-year period for a willful FMLA violation.

New case #2: A nursing manager told a supervisor that her mother was sick with cancer. Eventually, the manager accepted a demotion and went on FMLA leave to care for her mother. But she then sued the employer, alleging that she had been demoted because she said she might need to take FMLA leave. Result: The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the employer. A mere mention of her mother’s illness was not sufficient to trigger an FMLA notice or support a retaliation claim.

New case #3: An x-ray technician suffering from colitis was approved for intermittent leave. When he missed work for other reasons, he was terminated based on performance. The employee sued, claiming his intermittent leave had not been treated properly because he’d had to obtain frequent recertification. Result: The court ruled that the employer had followed the rules by allowing the employee plenty of time to obtain recertification and providing adequate notice. Therefore, the case was dismissed.

Moral of the story: Don’t leave these matters to chance. If you have any questions about FMLA eligibility, seek professional guidance.

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