A Labor Department rule provides that when an employer fails to notify an employee that leave qualifies under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the time off does not count toward the 12 weeks per year the employee is entitled to under the FMLA. Federal courts have split over whether this regulation is valid—and now the U.S. Supreme Court has tossed out the rule.
Employee Takes Medical Leave
Tracy Ragsdale worked at a Wolverine Worldwide Inc. factory in Arkansas. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and had to undergo surgery and months of radiation therapy. Wolverine granted Ragsdale 30 weeks of leave and maintained her health benefits during her entire leave. But Wolverine did not notify Ragsdale that the time off would count as FMLA leave. When Ragsdale asked for an additional 12 weeks of leave or permission to work part time, Wolverine said she had exhausted her leave under company policy. Ragsdale was terminated when she did not return to work.
Employee Charges FMLA Violation
Ragsdale sued Wolverine, claiming the company’s denial of additional leave violated the FMLA. In particular, Ragsdale argued that because Wolverine never told her that her medical leave qualified as FMLA leave, the time off didn’t count as FMLA leave and she was still entitled to an additional 12 weeks of leave. She relied on a federal Department of Labor regulation that provides that if an employer does not specifically designate leave as FMLA leave, the time off does not count toward the employee’s annual 12-week FMLA allotment.
Our HR Management & Compliance Report: How To Comply with California and Federal Leave Laws, covers everything you need to know to stay in compliance with both state and federal law in one of the trickiest areas of compliance for even the most experienced HR professional. Learn the rules for pregnancy and parental leaves, medical exams and certifications, intermittent leaves, required notices, and more.
Court Invalidates DOL Rule
The Supreme Court dismissed Ragsdale’s lawsuit and invalidated the Labor Department’s rule. The high court stated that the FMLA guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of leave in a one-year period and noted that Wolverine’s more generous policy had already provided Ragsdale 30 weeks of continuous medical leave. The court pointed out that the Labor Department regulation punishes an employer for failing to provide timely FMLA notice, regardless of whether the employee suffered any harm from the employer’s lapse. The court said this absolute penalty was inconsistent with the FMLA’s remedial purposes.
Assessment Of Harm To Employee
The court noted, however, that there may be instances when an employer’s failure to make the FMLA designation does impair the employee’s rights and therefore may entitle the employee to additional leave. For example, if an employee knows they are using up FMLA leave, they might decide to take intermittent leave rather than taking the full 12 weeks consecutively in order to preserve some leave time for a future emergency. But the determination of whether an employee’s rights have been impaired must be made on a case-by-case basis. And in this case, Ragsdale didn’t show that she was in any way prejudiced by Wolverine’s failure to provide FMLA notice.
Follow FMLA Notice Requirements
Although the Supreme Court’s decision is good news for employers, it’s still important to scrupulously follow FMLA rules concerning notice and benefits, which remain in effect. That’s because an employee could still claim that your failure to give required notice prejudiced them because they didn’t understand their rights. You’re required to designate time off as family or medical leave within two business days of learning that it qualifies. When an employee requests leave, you need to give them specific information about their rights and obligations, and the consequences if they fail to return to work from FMLA leave. You must also post a notice explaining employees’ FMLA rights.
You’re obligated to continue the employee’s group health benefits while they are on leave on the same terms that would apply if the employee were working. And when the employee returns from leave, you have to reinstate them to their original job or an equivalent position. An employee’s use of FMLA leave can’t result in the loss of benefits such as seniority that the employee was entitled to before the leave.