A recent case from the 6th Circuit shows just how important it is to make sure your Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) policy is up to snuff. In the case of Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission, an employee requested time off after a suspected heart attack. The company granted the request and sent the employee FMLA paperwork, representing that he was eligible for FMLA leave. Additionally, the company’s personnel manual contained a statement that employees who “accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months” were eligible for FMLA leave, yet importantly omitted the third requirement for FMLA eligibility, namely that there be “50 workers within a 75 mile radius” in order to be covered. The employee was ultimately terminated after failing to complete a specific task on time, which the employee claimed was due to his need to take time off. The employee filed a lawsuit claiming that the company interfered with his right to FMLA leave and retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave.The lower court dismissed the lawsuit relying on the undisputed fact that at the relevant time, the company did not employ at least 50 workers within a 75 mile radius – a necessary condition for FMLA eligibility. Therefore, because all three criteria needed for FMLA eligibility were not met, the district court dismissed the employee’s FMLA claim. The employee appealed the decision and the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed and held that the employee’s claim must proceed to trial. The 6th Circuit ruled that because a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes could reasonably believe that he was protected by the FMLA due to the company’s personnel handbook and its own misstatements regarding FMLA eligibility, the employee was allowed to proceed with his FMLA claim. In essence, even though the employee was technically ineligible for FMLA leave, because the employer made misrepresentations that the employee reasonably relied upon, the court found that the FMLA claim would survive and go to trial.
This case shows that courts can be extremely unforgiving when mistakes are made regarding coverage of federal employment laws. Misstatements made either in employee handbooks or providing the wrong paperwork can serve as a reasonable justification to allow an otherwise ineligible FMLA claim to proceed to trial. This case should serve as a wake-up call for employers to heed their attorneys’ advice to frequently make sure their employee handbooks are up-do-date. In the case above, a quick consult with their attorney could have saved thousands of dollars in litigation fees that the company is now faced with because they had an incomplete employee handbook.