Court interpretations of the FMLA will ultimately dictate how employers are supposed to handle their administration of the law. To that end, here are the most influential FMLA rulings in recent memory.
1. Employees can choose when not to use FMLA
Escriba v. Poultry Farms. In this case, an employee with a longstanding history of FMLA usage specifically told her direct supervisor that she didn’t want upcoming absences to care for her father to be counted as FMLA leave. Instead she wanted them to count as vacation time. So she went on vacation and didn’t return until well after her scheduled return date. She was fired as a result. The employee then filed an FMLA retaliation claim. She said her leave clearly triggered FMLA protections.
What the court ruled: The court sided with the company, and with good reason: On all of the employee’s previous 15 FMLA requests, she’d followed company policy and specifically requested FMLA leave directly from the HR department. So failing to do so on this occasion was proof that she didn’t mean to use FMLA to protect her time away from work, and the company couldn’t have interfered with her FMLA rights.
However, the more important takeaway was what the court said about employees’ rights regarding FMLA absences: “there are circumstances in which an employee might seek time off but intend not to exercise his or her rights under the FMLA.”
In other words, according to the court, employees could refuse to take FMLA leave even if their absences would otherwise be protected under the law.
Why it matters to you: This ruling generally contradicts what employers have always been told to do regarding FMLA administration: Designate an absence as FMLA leave any time an absence is taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason. This latest development could conceivably allow employees to double-dip by allowing them to take paid leave and then FMLA leave, instead of running the clock on both at the same time, as is standard procedure today.
The good news is that this ruling is an outlier. So until more courts rule that employees can refuse for time off to be counted against their FMLA allotment, designating an employee’s absence as FMLA leave — if it’s clear the absence will qualify for the job-protected leave — is still a safe and reliable employer practice.
Info: Read our full breakdown.
2. The line on what you can ask
Vess v. Select Medical Corp. In another FMLA-interference case with far-reaching implications, an employee alleged her employer interfered with her rights by asking her to do a significant amount of work while she was on leave.
Among other things, this work included fielding calls about scheduling, fielding calls from her supervisors to discuss her work duties and absences, inputting data and completing training before returning to work.
What the court ruled: This case was allowed to proceed to trial because there was enough evidence that she may have been denied FMLA benefits to which she was entitled — including the right to not have to perform work-related tasks while on leave.
Why it matters to you: This case provided an important lesson on the dangers of asking employees on FMLA to do too much. In addition, the court also offered detailed info on the narrow scope of what employers can ask of workers on leave. This includes:
- pass along institutional knowledge to new staff
- provide computer passwords
- seek closure on completed assignments, and
- identify other employees to fill voids.
Requesting anything more than this from workers can put you in danger of violating the FMLA.
Info: Read our full breakdown
3. A court-approved defense against abuse
Tillman v. Ohio Bell Telephone. In this case, an employer suspected an employee on intermittent FMLA of abusing his leave and took a very methodical approach to proving its suspicions. When the company believed that it had enough evidence to take action, it fired the employee, and he filed an FMLA interference and retaliation lawsuit.
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