First Circuit Court Takes Practical Approach to FMLA

May 23, 2014
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When an employer is given notice by an employee that he/she needs time off for a reason that may be covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employer is obligated to provide the employee with a Notice of Eligibility and Rights & Responsibilities Notice. Once the employer determines that the employee’s absence qualifies under FMLA, the employer must also provide the employee with a Designation Notice. Failure to provide either of these notices violates FMLA requirements. This was the focus in the recent case of Scott Bellone v.  Southwick-Tolland Regional School District where the U.S. Court of Appeals (First Circuit) took a practical approach. Mr. Bellone claimed that he did not receive a proper Notice of Eligibility when applying for a leave of absence. In response, he was provided with a blank medical certification form and instructed to fill out the form and return it within 15 days. He completed the form and returned it as directed. Sixteen weeks later (and long after the employee’s 12-week FMLA leave was exhausted), the School District belatedly sent the Designation Notice to Mr. Bellone, retroactively designating the previously exhausted 12-week period as FMLA leave. He was fired shortly thereafter for reasons not directly related to his leave of absence. In the lawsuit against the employer, the employee claimed that the FMLA was violated as he was not provided with proper or timely notices (see above).  Further, it was his contention that, if he had known his absence was being classified as FMLA leave, he would have planned out his leave of absence in a manner which would have allowed him to use some leave time later. Despite the Employer’s blatant omissions, the court found that the employee could not demonstrate any harm resulting from the employer’s FMLA notice failures. While acknowledging that the employer violated the FMLA, the court emphasized that employee took 16 weeks of leave which exceeded the 12 weeks allowed under FMLA. It further found that the employee failed to prove that he could have returned at the end of 12 weeks or that he could have planned his leave differently if he had been provided with proper notice. This case demonstrates that employers must follow all of the requirements of the FMLA to include providing required notices.  In the case, however, the employer eluded the damage of its failure under the doctrine of “no harm, no foul.” This court-granted grace, however, should not be expected as this case turned on its own particular facts.  Further, the employer still needed to defend the case at considerable expense even though damages were not assessed. The real moral: know the law and follow its requirements to the best of your ability to avoid lawsuits and claims for damages. If you have any questions about the case discussed above or would like to discuss other employment law matters, please contact me or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work.