Court Finds “No Harm No Foul” Where Employee Fails to Show She Suffered Harm from FMLA Violation

The U.S. District Court of Montana, in Jergens v. Marias Medical Center, has dismissed an employee’s claim for FMLA violations by her former employer because the employee failed to show that she suffered any “prejudice” from the former employer’s alleged FMLA violations.

Law. When an employer is put on notice that an employee needs leave for a reason that may be covered by the FMLA, the employer has an obligation to provide the employee a Notice of Eligibility and Rights & Responsibilities. Once an employer has sufficient information from an employee to determine whether the absence qualifies under the FMLA, the employer must send the employee a Designation Notice. If an employer fails to provide these forms, it risks an FMLA violation. 

While employers have a duty to notify an employee of potential eligibility to take FMLA leave, the failure to provide this notice does not confer a standalone cause of action. The FMLA provides no relief unless the employee can show she was prejudiced (i.e., had a loss or injury) because of the violation.

Facts. Following allegations that the employee had engaged in workplace misconduct, she was placed on administrative leave while the employer investigated. At the conclusion of the investigation, the employer terminated the employee. The employee subsequently learned of internal emails between the employer’s Human Resources director and an employment investigator discussing her case and the possibility of FMLA leave. 

The employee proceeded to file a claim in federal court against her former employer alleging violations under the FMLA, specifically that it had failed to notify her that she was entitled to the statutorily-mandated 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA. The employer responded by arguing that the former employee’s FMLA claim failed because she did not show that she was prejudiced by the alleged violation.

District Court. After reviewing the record, the court agreed with the employer that she had provided no evidence that she suffered any prejudice from the alleged FMLA violation. The court noted that if the employer had provided the notice the employee alleged was mandated, and subsequently granted her FMLA leave, the employer would only have been required to place her on unpaid FMLA leave or required her to use her accrued paid personal or vacation time, rather than provide her with paid administrative leave.

Next, the court reiterated that the FMLA does not provide employees with immunity from termination. The court emphasized that the employer terminated the employee based on numerous allegations of workplace misconduct, and that the employee did not request FMLA leave or ask for any other kind of leave. In fact, at the hearing before the court, the employee conceded that she did not want to take any leave whatsoever. 

Consequently, the court concluded that because the employee had failed to identify any prejudice she had suffered as a result of the employer’s alleged FMLA notice violation, it was required to reject her claim as a matter of law.  

Employer Takeaway. Despite the outcome of this case, as a best practice, employers should provide proper and timely FMLA notices, especially to avoid costly litigation. (Note: The court subsequently rejected the employer’s request that the plaintiff be required to reimburse it for the costs it incurred to defend the case.) Specifically, when employers receive notice of the need for leave that may be covered by FMLA., they must provide the Notice of Eligibility and Rights & Responsibilities. And when an employer has enough information to determine that FMLA applies, it must provide the Designation Notice.