In Jones v. Wireless Time of Alabama, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Alabama ruled that an employee was not entitled to FMLA leave despite the fact that her employer referred to the FMLA in its employee handbook.
Facts. An employee who had been informed that she had a high risk pregnancy told her employer that she would require several weeks’ leave both before and after childbirth. Her employer granted her unpaid leave but when she returned to work, she was reassigned to a lower position. As a result, the employee sued her employer for, among other things, a violation of her FMLA rights which were described in the employee handbook. In response, the employer defended itself by stating that it was too small to be subject to the FMLA.
Law. Under the FMLA, certain employers must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to eligible employees for certain specified events, such as: personal illness; to care for a seriously ill family member; childbirth; adoption or placement of a child; military caregiver leave and military exigency leave.
Employees are generally eligible for FMLA leave if they: (i) have worked for their employer for at least 12 months, including 1,250 hours over the past 12 months; and (ii) work at a location where the employer employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
District Court. In ruling in favor of the employer, the court noted that the employee handbook did include a “Section 5.6 FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE ACT (FMLA)” which said an employee may be entitled to FMLA leave. However, the employer established that a company official informed the plaintiff “that the company did not offer leave under the FMLA because the company was under the  employee threshold.” The court also found that the plaintiff “has submitted no evidence indicating that the employer made any representations to her about being eligible for FMLA when she went on leave.”
The court concluded that “[a]lthough the exact requirements may be somewhat confusing to an employee unfamiliar with the FMLA, [the employee handbook] clearly indicates that an employee is not automatically eligible for FMLA leave…the policy itself was not a misrepresentation and could not have lead Plaintiff to believe that she was automatically eligible for FMLA leave.” The court therefore dismissed the employee’s FMLA complaint.
Employer Takeaway. The employer was fortunate that its apparently generic employee handbook only said that the employee “may” be entitled to FMLA leave, and that a company official had told the employee that she was not entitled to FMLA leave. Otherwise, despite its size, the employer, through its words and actions could have unintentionally bound itself to the FMLA requirements. Accordingly, out of an abundance of caution employers should carefully and regularly review their employee benefit communications to ensure that they accurately represent the benefits and programs actually being offered to employees.