Firing After Leave Request Denial May Be FMLA Violation

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in Byrd v. City of Houston, has determined that a plaintiff-employee's Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") claim should be allowed to proceed where the defendant-employer first approved and then subsequently denied the employee's FMLA leave request and then fired her for excessive absences.

Background. The plaintiff requested FMLA leave to care for her hospitalized daughter. At the time of this request, the plaintiff was a probationary employee. The plaintiff took 11 days leave.

Under the defendant's attendance policy, the rules on absence: (i) defined a "scheduled" absence as an absence based on a request made more than 24 hours in advance of a scheduled shift; and (ii) prohibited employees from scheduling time off that exceeded the amount of accrued hours in their time bank, with an exception for FMLA leave or an approved absence. The attendance policy further provided that probationary employees with over 40 hours of unscheduled time off could be fired, with such employees to receive written notice from their supervisor when they reach the 40-hour limit.

In response to the plaintiff's request for FMLA leave, the defendant sent the plaintiff a FMLA packet for review and completion, which the plaintiff timely completed and returned to the defendant. The defendant's FMLA coordinator then signed a Notice of Eligibility form for the plaintiff which indicated she was eligible for FMLA leave.

However, when the plaintiff returned to work, the FMLA coordinator provided the plaintiff a FMLA Disapproval Notification stating she was ineligible for the FMLA leave because she had not yet worked the required 1,250 hours and one year for the employer. The Notification explained that the defendant's timekeeping system, which was used to determine FMLA eligibility, was in error when the initial approval was granted.

The defendant terminated the plaintiff saying she had accrued 88 hours of unscheduled absences. In response, the plaintiff sued, alleging FMLA interference and retaliation.

District Court. The plaintiff claimed that her absences were protected leave under FMLA. Although the plaintiff conceded that she was technically ineligible for FMLA leave, she argued that the defendant's first notice of eligibility estopped it from denying her eligibility. In response, the defendant argued that it was unreasonable for the plaintiff to rely on its FMLA coordinator's representation because its written policy stated the applicable requirements for FMLA leave.

In reviewing the matter, the court determined that the plaintiff's estoppel claim presented triable issues. The court found that the defendant made a definite statement misrepresenting the plaintiff's FMLA eligibility. The court noted that it was undisputed that the plaintiff relied on this assurance to take FMLA leave, and there was a genuine factual dispute about whether this reliance was reasonable.

The defendant next argued that the plaintiff's FMLA claims failed because the plaintiff was fired for "unsatisfactory attendance during the period of probation." Specifically, the defendant highlighted the plaintiff's 88 hours of unscheduled absences prior to the commencement of the leave period in question, and asserted that this period of leave was not part of the consideration for employment termination. However, the court observed that the plaintiff's time records contained certain discrepancies that made it questionable whether there was a basis to support the defendant's position.

Ultimately, the court concluded that there were genuine factual disputes material to deciding liability in the matter and whether the defendant acted in good faith and with a reasonable belief that it was not violating FMLA. Accordingly, the court determined that the case should be resolved at trial and allowed the plaintiff's claims to proceed.

A copy of the Byrd v. City of Houston decision is available by clicking here