Employment Law Daily Employer liable under FMLA for firing employee who took leave to care for ailing parents
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Friday, May 27, 2016

Employer liable under FMLA for firing employee who took leave to care for ailing parents

By Lorene D. Park, J.D. Granting partial summary judgment for an employee on the issue of the defendants’ liability for FMLA interference, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found that she established as a matter of law that even though she did not formally request “FMLA” leave, she was entitled to leave under the Act to care for her ailing parents, the employer’s leave donation policy did not supplant the FMLA, she satisfied the Act’s notice requirements, and the defendants failed to restore her to her position (or its equivalent) as required by the Act. The only issue remaining for trial was the amount damages to award (Raimondi v. Wyoming County, May 24, 2016, Munley, J.). Left to care for ailing parents. The employee was hired in 2006 to be the assistant director of the county’s 911 center, and performed well enough to be promoted to director in 2007. In early May 2014, her father fell and fractured his femur. He required surgery and entered a nursing home to recover. The employee’s mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and other problems, could not care for herself alone, and so went to the nursing home as well. On May 15, the employee’s father asked her to come to Indiana to care for her mother because he believed the nursing home was not caring for her properly and, as a result, she was suffering pain and anxiety. The employee went to Indiana in June but the parties disputed whether she requested FMLA leave before she left and whether she qualified for FMLA leave. Fired two months later. On July 1, the employee called the county commissioners to check in and was informed she would not be restored to her position and would be terminated unless she resigned. She soon returned to Pennsylvania and informed the defendants that she would not resign. She was terminated by letter dated July 10. The employee filed suit alleging FMLA interference. She also filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. Entitled to FMLA leave though never requested forms. The defendants argued that the employee was not entitled to FMLA leave because she never requested FMLA forms but the court disagreed. It explained that the Third Circuit has held that while an employee must “state a qualifying reason for the needed leave” and fulfill notice requirements, she “does not need to expressly assert rights under the Act or even mention the FMLA.” Here, while the employee conceded that she never specifically requested “FMLA leave” or the “FMLA forms,” it was undisputed that she informed the defendants, before she left, that she needed time off to be with her sick father and to prepare her parents’ house for their return from the nursing home. That was enough to state a qualifying reason for FMLA leave as a matter of law. Notably, to the extent the defendants found deficiencies in the employee’s notice, they were obligated to provide an opportunity to cure and failed to do so; nor did they request a medical certification. Leave donation policy does not supplant FMLA. The defendants also asserted that the employee was not entitled to FMLA leave because the county’s leave donation policy supplants FMLA leave up and until the point when the employee exhausts all available leave, including personal, vacation, holiday, and sick time. In the court’s view, this emphasis on the employee’s use of her own leave showed that the defendants did not understand that the FMLA allows paid leave under an employer’s policy to run concurrently with unpaid FMLA leave; but FMLA protections still apply regardless of how the employer designates it. “In short, no paid leave policy may usurp protections afforded to employees under the FMLA.” Parents had serious health conditions. Also rejected was the defendants’ argument that FMLA leave is limited to medical emergencies. For this “family member” type of leave, explained the court, an eligible employee may take leave “to care for” a family member’s physical and psychological needs, including psychological comfort to a parent with a serious health condition who is receiving inpatient or home care, including “to make arrangements for changes in care.” The court found that the undisputed facts established that the employee’s mother and father both had serious health conditions, and that the employee went to Indiana to make arrangements for her mother’s change in care and see to her physical and psychological needs. To the extent the defendants claimed they never received any information about her parents’ health, they should have inquired further and they could not turn their failure to do so against the employee. Notice. Having determined that the employee was entitled to FMLA leave as a matter of law, the court further concluded that she satisfied the Act’s notice requirements. Where, as here, the need for leave was unforeseeable, employees must notify their employer “as soon as practicable” and “provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply.” The undisputed evidence showed that the employee notified the defendants of her intent to take FMLA leave and stated her “dad was ill, and she had to get the house ready for him to come home.” She also said he was coming home “from the hospital.” That was enough. Denied benefits when not restored to position. The employee also established the final element of her FMLA interference claim by showing that the defendants illegitimately denied her FMLA benefits when they refused to restore her to her position at the conclusion of her leave. Indeed, she was still on FMLA leave when she was told that she could not return. While the defendants argued that they would have fired her anyway for performance reasons, undisputed testimony showed that her termination was clearly related to her FMLA leave. One commissioner and the county’s designee both testified that her leave was a contributing factor. Moreover, the defendants produced no evidence supporting their references to “performance problems.”

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