Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) generally requires that an employee have a “serious health condition”, as defined in the regulations. However, there is a situation in which the employee may be entitled to FMLA leave, regardless of whether they actually had a serious health condition. This occurs when the employer misleads an employee into thinking that they were entitled to FMLA leave, and the employee acts accordingly.
A recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Reed v. Lear Corporation, explored a claim by an employee that he was improperly terminated for absenteeism, because he was led to believe by his employer that he was entitled to FMLA leave, and, thus, did not use his vacation for certain absences.
The Lear Corporation had an internal procedure surrounding any application for FMLA leave. The H.R. Department provided a packet of paperwork to each inquiring employee which contained information on how to fill out the necessary forms and directed employees to call a certain H.R. specialist if they had any questions about FMLA. The packet informed the employee that: (1) incomplete application forms for FMLA leave would not be reviewed; (2) an employee must provide a medical certification from a licensed health care provider attesting that they were unable to work due to illness or injury; and (3) any time an employee took off before official approval for FMLA would not be protected if their request for leave was ultimately denied.
Reed submitted two requests for FMLA leave. In both, the doctor stated that the employee was not currently incapacitated. The company sent Reed a letter after each application stating that his application for FMLA leave was denied.
Because certain language in the last letter confused Reed, his union representative went to the Human Resources Department to ask about the meaning of the letter. Reed claimed that although he did not observe the conversation, from outside the room, he overheard someone tell the union representative that the FMLA request had not been denied and that the employee was on provisional FMLA leave. The company denied such a comment was made. Reed was absent from work for several days, and was terminated.
After the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, the employee appealed. Upon appeal, the Eighth Circuit noted that there are three elements which must be proved to support an employee’s claim that they should be entitled to rely upon a representation that they were entitled to certain benefits, even if, in reality, they were not. An employee must prove: (1) there was a representation by the company; (2) that misled the employee; and (3) the employee then reasonably relied upon that representation to their detriment. In other words, if an employee acts upon a reasonable mistaken belief about eligibility for FMLA leave, the employer may not take disciplinary action for such absenteeism.
In examining that claim, the Court noted that the packet of information given to employees stated that nothing short of a properly completed certification form would allow the company to authorize FMLA. The employees were further advised that if they took any time off prior to official approval from the company, such time would not be protected if the event did not qualify as a serious health condition.