• Ineligible Employee Granted FMLA Benefits After Employer Incorporated FMLA Into Its Personnel Policies
  • August 3, 2007
  • Law Firm: Miller Nash LLP - Seattle Office
  • An employer that incorporated the leave benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) into its employee policies has been “estopped” (meaning “prohibited”) from arguing that an employee should be denied FMLA benefits even though the employee’s work location and the employee were not covered by FMLA.

    An Iowa federal court held that a Minnesota-based employer was obligated to provide FMLA leave benefits to an employee in Iowa although the Iowa plant was too small to be covered by the federal statute. Myers v. Turso Co., No. 07-CV-03016-MWB (N.D. Iowa July 13, 2007). Jason Myers, the employee, never applied for FMLA and never asked whether he was entitled to FMLA leave before returning from two months of medical leave. After an unanticipated illness lasting two months, Myers returned to work and was denied reinstatement because the Fort Dodge, Iowa, plant had filled his position and had fewer than 50 employees in a 75-mile radius, a statutory requirement for FMLA coverage. Myers was allowed to present his case to a jury to determine whether or not he reasonably relied on the employee manual that notified all full-time employees that they were entitled to FMLA leave benefits after working 12 months. The employer’s St. Paul facilities were covered by FMLA because more than 50 employees worked at the Minnesota headquarters and plant. The employee handbook failed to distinguish between employees of the two states when describing the FMLA benefits available.

    The employer argued unsuccessfully that Myers was bound by a Department of Labor poster in the lunchroom at the Iowa facility that discussed the 50-employee minimum requirement. The court said that Myers did not know how many people were working in Iowa, so the employer had the obligation to affirmatively inform employees at the Fort Dodge plant that they did not qualify for FMLA benefits, even if the employees unilaterally took leave without asking whether they were entitled to it.

    The court placed great significance on the employer statement in its leave policy that it provided FMLA benefits to full-time employees who had worked for at least 12 months. The employer policy on FMLA did not reference other FMLA provisions required for coverage, such as the 50-employee minimum workforce size within 75 miles of the employee’s workplace.

    Because the court relied on a 2006 Supreme Court case finding that the requirements for FMLA coverage are elements of the employee’s claim rather than jurisdictional requirements, employers should anticipate that more employees and their lawyers will try to use estoppel or other equitable theories to expand the coverage of FMLA benefits beyond those employees whom Congress intended to cover.

    Preventive Advice: Employers may be able to avoid estoppel and other equitable theories if their personnel policies specifically caution that some employees may not meet FMLA requirements, so employees should not assume that they are eligible for FMLA leave without first checking with Human Resources. The FMLA requirements are so intricate that it is best to have the inquiries referred directly to Human Resources rather than to a supervisor. The Minnesota employer that is facing a jury trial on Myers’ wrongful-termination claim told its employees in its employee FMLA policy that they should ask their supervisor or Human Resources only if they had questions about their FMLA rights. Myers never inquired about his right to leave; he unilaterally took the leave on the false assumption that he was entitled to it.