A federal district court judge has refused to dismiss an employee’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) suit and has instead determined that a jury should hear hear how she was fired after confusion about how much leave she had available (Rengan v. FX Direct Dealer, LLC, No. 1:15-cv-04137 (S.D.N.Y)).
The employer’s handbook had two separate sections: one discussed employees’ entitlements to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, while the other offered workers eight weeks of paid maternity leave, with the option to take four more weeks unpaid.
The suing employee didn’t realize that the employer considered the leaves to run concurrently and was fired when she didn’t return to work after 12 weeks. The judge said a jury will have to determine whether the employer interfered with her FMLA rights, including her right to reinstatement.
This case is a perfect example of why both formal and informal communication is key to FMLA compliance. First, the law requires that employers provide an employee with very specific notices (within very specific timeframes) to designate leave as counting against her statutory allotment. When the employee submitted a formal request for time off, she titled the email “Maternity leave,” and requested that she be able to use her accrued vacation followed by the maternity leave spelled out in the employer’s handbook. It is undisputed that the employer approved the leave and never provided FMLA eligibility and designation notices.
Second, employers need to ensure that all parties involved understand the benefits to which employees are entitled. The HR manager testified that, based on experience at previous jobs, she assumed the leaves would run concurrently. Her boss, a VP, told the court she believed they would run consecutively.
The fact pattern of course includes some allegations that the employee was informed verbally that she would have to return to work after 12 weeks’ leave. But it also includes allegations that she repeatedly emailed and called the employer to clarify the situation and request more time off, but never heard back.
Finally, employers may want to ensure that communication around FMLA is up-to-par even before a request comes in. Businesses are free to include a note in their handbooks that any employer-provided leaves will run concurrently with FMLA, if eligible. Many employers exercise this option as it cuts down on the time employees can be out of work each year.