• Supreme Court Narrows Scope of FMLA and ADA
  • May 20, 2003 | Author: Pierce E. Buller
  • Law Firm: Dilworth Paxson LLP - Philadelphia Office
  • Notice Requirement of Family and Medical Leave Act
    Clarifying an issue that has plagued employers administering the FMLA for years, the Supreme Court recently ruled that a Department of Labor regulation wrongfully penalizes employers for failure to give their employees timely notice that leave they are taking is FMLA leave.

    The situation presented by Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, ___ U.S. ____ (2002), is an unfortunately familiar one for many employers. Ragsdale was given thirty weeks of leave by Wolverine World Wide ("Wolverine") for treatment of a serious health condition. However, Wolverine never informed Ragsdale that those thirty weeks would be counted against her 12 week FMLA entitlement. When Wolverine refused to grant additional leave, Ragsdale sued under a DOL regulation that states that leave taken does not count against an employee's 12 weeks of FMLA leave if the employer does not designate it as FMLA leave in a timely notice to the employee, which usually must be given within two business days after learning that the reason for the absence may qualify for FMLA leave benefits.

    In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the DOL regulation "is contrary to the [FMLA]." Noting that the penalty of not counting leave already taken prior to an untimely FMLA notice is "extreme" and "inconsistent with Congress' intent," the Court sympathized with employers by recognizing that the "regulation imposes a high price for a good-faith but erroneous characterization of an absence as non-FMLA leave." It concluded that the penalty could be imposed on the employer only when its failure to give the notice as required prejudices the employee. Importantly, the Supreme Court focused only on the penalty aspect of the DOL regulation, and did not reject the notice requirement itself. Thus, employers must still give individualized notice to employees taking FMLA leave; however, employers can no longer be penalized for failing to do so where the lack of such notice did not prejudice the employee.

    Conflict between ADA and Seniority Systems
    In another recent case under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), the Supreme Court established a rebuttable presumption that an accommodation for a disabled person that violates the seniority rights of other employees is unreasonable, acknowledging that the "the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases." US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, ___ U.S. ___ (2002). If faced with an ADA claim, the Court held that the "typical employer" need not "show more than the existence of a seniority system" to deny an accommodation request which would conflict with it because that would "undermine the employees' expectations of consistent, uniform treatment - expectations upon which the seniority system's benefits depend." The Court further held that the "statute does not require proof on a case-by-case basis that a seniority system should prevail."

    It was careful to note, however, that "[t]he simple fact that an accommodation would provide a 'preference' - in the sense that it would permit the worker with a disability to violate a rule that others must obey - cannot, in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation is not 'reasonable.'"

    If denied an accommodation under the ADA for seniority reasons, a disabled employee would have "to show that special circumstances warrant a finding that, despite the presence of a seniority system, the requested 'accommodation' is 'reasonable' on the particular facts." For example, the employee could show that the employer "fairly frequently" changes the seniority system or makes exceptions to it, thus "reducing employee expectations that the system will be followed - to the point where one more departure, needed to accommodate an individual with a disability, will not likely make a difference." Absent persuasive evidence of that nature, however, the seniority system will prevail.