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Employer’s Badly Drafted FMLA Policy Allows Employee’s Claim to Proceed Through the Legal System

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Between the holidays and the advent of the New Year, it’s been a little quiet in our courts and federal agencies in terms of new law and regulations. However, the Sixth Circuit has broken the monotony of the litigation blues by handing down a recent decision regarding the FMLA.

In the case of Tilley v. Kalamazoo Country Road Commission et al. (6th Cir. January 26, 2015), the court held that a Michigan county agency was barred from arguing that its employee was ineligible for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because the employee relied on an inaccurate description of FMLA eligibility requirements contained in the agency’s personnel manual when he began his leave that led to his termination.

In a brief recap of the FMLA’s basic premises, an employee is eligible for FMLA leave if he meets three basic criteria: 1) he has been employed by a covered employer for 12 months; 2) he has worked 1,250 hours during the 12-month period before his requested leave begins; and 3) he works at a location where his employer employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of that location.

In Tilley, although the employer did not have 50 employees within 75 miles of the plaintiff’s worksite, the employer’s failure to specify that requirement in its personnel manual precluded summary judgment on the plaintiff’s equitable estoppel claim. In layman’s speak, because the manual only addressed the first two criteria of the three normally necessary for the employee to qualify for the leave, the court allowed his case to proceed through the system and put the plaintiff’s FMLA claim in front of a jury, even though the protections of the FMLA otherwise would not have applied to him. Leaving out that third prong of what the court considered an “unambiguous and unqualified” FMLA eligibility provision was the death knell on what could have been a slam-dunk rejection of plaintiff’s claim for reasonably relying on the personnel handbook and his coverage under the FMLA. (Of course, the jury still has to determine if the plaintiff reasonably relied on the handbook prior to going out on FMLA leave, but for the employer instead of paying out a minimum in attorney’s fees to get the summary judgment and case closed, instead it faces thousands and thousands more in attorney’s fees and costs.)

One can only hope that this was a lesson learned for the Michigan agency, and also serves as a warning to other employers. Be sure to conduct a legal review of your personnel handbook, and in this case any mention of your FMLA policy. Better to spend a little money up front on a labor attorney than to be subject later to thousands of dollars in claims of inaccurate human resources policies.

Hilary Atkins

Posted In: Legal

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