News & Events

Federal Appeals Court Provides Employers With a Harsh Reminder to Carefully Draft Their FMLA Policies

Submitted By Firm: Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC

Contact(s): Louis P. DiLorenzo, Thomas G. Eron

Author(s):

Joseph K. Dier

Date Published: 4/2/2015

Article Type:

Share This:

Employers are likely well aware of the conditions that must be satisfied before an employee can be deemed eligible for leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):

  • the employee has worked for the employer for at least 12 months;
  • the employee has worked 1,250 hours in the 12 months preceding the leave request; and
  • the employer has 50 or more employees at, or within 75 miles of, the employee’s workplace — the so-called "50/75" requirement.

If one of these conditions is not satisfied, an employer cannot later be held liable for any FMLA-related claims brought by an employee, right? Not so fast! Although determining whether these conditions are met is typically the simplest step in the FMLA certification process, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently reminded employers of the headaches they may face if they are not careful in notifying their employees of these conditions.

On January 26, 2015, the Sixth Circuit decided Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission. Tilley was employed by the Road Commission, which did not meet the 50/75 requirement. The Road Commission’s personnel manual contained the following statement regarding an employee’s eligibility to apply for FMLA benefits: "Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months."

On August 1, 2011, Tilley began experiencing symptoms that made him fear that he was suffering a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital, admitted for observation, and discharged the next day. After his discharge, Tilley’s wife informed the Road Commission that Tilley would not be able to return to work until at least August 5.

On August 9, a Road Commission representative sent Tilley FMLA paperwork that informed him that he was "eligible for FMLA leave." At no time was Tilley informed that the Road Commission did not meet the 50/75 requirement, or that such a requirement even existed. On August 12, the Road Commission terminated Tilley’s employment, claiming that the reason for his termination was his failure to timely submit certain work assignments.

Tilley filed suit, claiming that the Road Commission interfered with his right to FMLA leave and retaliated against him for taking such leave. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the Road Commission that Tilley was not technically an "eligible employee" under FMLA, but concluded that Tilley’s case could continue because there was a dispute as to whether the Road Commission was "equitably estopped" from denying that Tilley was an eligible employee.

The Court explained that "in certain circumstances equitable estoppel applies to employer statements regarding an employee’s FMLA eligibility, preventing the employer from raising non-eligibility as a defense." In order to prevail on such an "equitable estoppel" argument, an employee must show a definite misrepresentation by the employer, a reasonable reliance on the misrepresentation, and a resulting detriment to the employee who reasonably relied on the misrepresentation. The Court found that Tilley presented sufficient evidence on all three elements to allow his case to continue.

As to the first element, the Court held that the Road Commission’s personnel manual contained a "clear misrepresentation" as to Tilley’s eligibility to apply for FMLA benefits. Specifically, the manual contained an "unambiguous and unqualified statement" that Tilley was covered by FMLA and was eligible to apply for FMLA benefits if he worked 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months, but it failed to note that the 50/75 requirement must also be satisfied. Next, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence that Tilley relied upon the eligibility statement in the manual, which was sufficient to satisfy the second element. Finally, as to the third element, the Court held that Tilley suffered a detriment as a result of his reliance on the eligibility statement in the manual since he was fired in part because he missed a deadline that he claims he would not have missed but for his reliance on the manual. Therefore, because Tilley raised questions of fact regarding all elements of an equitable estoppel claim, the Court permitted Tilley’s FMLA claims to move forward.

The takeaway from this decision is straightforward: employers should immediately review their personnel manuals and/or FMLA policies to ensure that they are well-drafted and that all eligibility conditions for FMLA leave are adequately explained. A poorly drafted or incomplete FMLA policy could result in an employer being in a situation similar to the Road Commission — potentially being liable for an FMLA claim even when the employee making the claim is not even technically eligible for FMLA leave!

Find a Member

View or print a complete ELA member list »

Client Successes

Altra Industrial Motion Inc.

Altra Industrial Motion Inc. has multiple locations in the U.S., as well as Central America, Europe, and Asia. The Employment Law Alliance has proved to be a great asset in assisting us in dealing with employment issues and matters in such diverse venues as Mexico, Australia, and Spain. We have obtained excellent results using the ELA network for matters ranging from a multi-state review of employment policies to assisting with individual employment issues in a variety of foreign jurisdictions.

In one instance, we were faced with an employment dispute with a former associate in Mexico that had the potential for substantial economic exposure. The matter had been pending for over a year, and we were not confident in the employment advice we had been receiving. I obtained a referral to the ELA counsel in Mexico, who was able to obtain a favorable resolution of the dispute in only a few days. Based on our experiences with the ELA, we would not hesitate to use its many resources for future employment law needs.

American University in Bulgaria

In my career I have been a practicing attorney, counsel to the Governor of Maine, and CEO of a major public utility. I have worked with many lawyers in many settings. When the American University in Bulgaria needed help with employment litigation in federal court in Syracuse, New York, we turned to Pierce Atwood, the ELA member we knew and trusted in Maine, for a referral. We were extremely pleased with the responsiveness and high quality of service we received from Bond Schoeneck & King, the ELA's firm in upstate New York. I would not hesitate to recommend the ELA to any employer.

David T. Flanagan
Member of Board of Trustees 

Arcata Associates

I really enjoyed the Conducting an Effective Internal Investigation in the United States webinar.  We are in the midst of a rather delicate employee relations issue in California right now and the discussion helped me tremendously.  It also reinforced things that you tend to forget if you don't do these investigations frequently.  So, many, many thanks to the Employment Law Alliance for putting that webinar together.  It was extremely beneficial.

Lynn Clayton
Vice President, Human Resources

Barrett Business Services, Inc.

I recently participated in the ELA-sponsored webinar on the Employee Free Choice Act.  I was most impressed with that presentation.  It was extremely helpful and very worthwhile.  I have also been utilizing the ELA's online Global Employer Handbook.  This compliance tool is absolutely terrific. 

I am familiar with several other products that purport to provide up-to- date employment law information and I believe that this resource is superior to other similar compliance manuals.  I am delighted that the ELA provides this free to its members' clients.

Boyd Coffee Company

Employment Law Alliance (ELA) has provided Boyd Coffee Company with a highly valued connection to resources, important information and learning. With complex operations and employees working in approximately 20 states, we are continually striving to keep abreast of specific state laws, many of which vary from state to state. We have participated in the ELA web seminars and have found the content very useful. We appreciate the ease, cost effectiveness and quality of the content and presenters offered by these web seminars.  The Global Employer Handbook has provided our company with a very helpful overview of legal issues in the various states in which we operate, and the network of attorneys has helped us manage issues that have arisen in states other than where our Roastery and corporate headquarters are located in Portland, Oregon.

Capgemini Outsourcing Services GmbH

As an international operating outsourcing and consulting supplier Capgemini has used firms of the Employment Law Alliance in Central Europe. We were always highly satisfied with the quality of employment law advice and the responsiveness. I can really recommend the ELA lawyers.

Hirschfeld Kraemer

Stephen HirschfeldAs an employment lawyer based in San Francisco, I work closely with high tech clients with operations around the globe. Last year, one of my clients needed to implement a workforce reduction in a dozen countries simultaneously. And they gave me 48 hours to accomplish this. I don't know how I could have pulled this off without the resources of the ELA. I don't know of any single law firm that could have made this happen. My client received all of the help they needed in a timely fashion and on a cost effective basis.

Stephen J. Hirschfeld
Partner 

Hollywood Entertainment Corporation

As the Vice President for Litigation & Associate General Counsel for my company, I need to ensure that we have a team of top-notch employment lawyers in place in every jurisdiction where we do business. And I want to be confident that those lawyers know our business so they don't have to reinvent the wheel when a new legal matter arises. With more than 3400 stores and 35,000 employees operating in all 50 U.S. states and across Canada, we rely on the ELA to partner with us to help accomplish our objectives. I have been delighted with the consistent high quality of the work performed by ELA lawyers. I encourage other in-house counsel to use their services, as well.

Ingram Micro

Ingram Micro is the world's largest technology distributor, providing sales, marketing, and logistics services for the IT industry around the globe. With over 13,000 employees working throughout the U.S. and in 35 international countries, we need employment lawyers who we can count on to ensure global legal compliance. Our experience with many multi-state and multi-national law firms is that their employment law services are not always a high priority for them, and many do not have experts in many of their offices. The ELA has assembled an excellent team of highly skilled employment lawyers, wherever and whenever I need them, and they have proven to be an invaluable resource to our company.

Konami Gaming

Our company, Konami Gaming, Inc., is growing rapidly in a very diverse and highly regulated industry. We are aggressively entering new markets outside the domestic U.S., including Canada and South America. I have had the recent opportunity to utilize the services provided by the ELA. The legal advice was both responsive and professional. Most of all, the entire process was seamless since our Nevada attorney coordinated the services and legal advice requested. I look forward to working with the ELA in the future, as it serves as a great resource to the legal community.

Jennifer Martinez
Vice President, Human Resources

Nikkiso Cryo, Inc.

Until recently, I was unaware of the ELA's existence. We have subsidiaries and affiliates throughout the United States, as well as in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. When a recent legal issue arose in Texas, our long-time Nevada counsel, who is a member of the ELA, suggested that this matter be handled by his ELA colleague in Dallas. We are very pleased with the quality and timeliness of services provided by that firm, and we are excited to now have the ELA as an important asset to help us address employment law issues worldwide.

Palm, Inc.

The ELA network has been immensely important to our company in helping us address an array of human resources challenges around the world. I strongly encourage H.R. executives who have employees located in many different jurisdictions to utilize the ELA's unparalleled expertise and geographic coverage.

Stacy Murphy
Former Senior Director of Human Resources

Rich Products

As the General Counsel for a company with 6,500 employees operating across the U.S. and in eight countries, it is critical that I have top quality lawyers on the ground where we do business. The ELA is an indispensable resource. It has taken the guesswork out of finding the best employment counsel wherever we have a problem.

Jill K. Bond
Senior Vice President/General Counsel, Shared Services and Benefits

Ricoh Americas Corporation

We have direct sales and service offices all over the U.S., but have not necessarily had the need in the past for assistance with legal work in every state where we have a business presence. From time to time, we suddenly find ourselves facing a legal issue in a state where we have no outside counsel relationship. It has been a real benefit to know that the ELA has assembled such an impressive team of experts throughout the U.S. and overseas.

A few years ago, we faced a very tough discrimination lawsuit in Mississippi. We had never had to retain a lawyer there before. I was absolutely delighted with the Mississippi ELA firm. We received an excellent result. They will no doubt handle all of our employment law matters in Mississippi in the future. I have also obtained the assistance of several other ELA firms around the U.S. and have received the same outstanding service. The ELA is a tremendous resource for our company.

Roberts-Gordon LLC

Our affiliated companies have used the Employment Law Alliance in connection with numerous acquisitions, and have always been extremely pleased with our ability to obtain the highest quality legal advice on due diligence issues from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We have found the Employment Law Alliance firms to be not only first rate with respect to their legal advice but also responsive and timely in assisting us with federal and state law issues critical to our due diligence efforts. We consider the Employment Law Alliance to be an important part of our team.

Rockwell Collins, Inc.

We have partnered with many ELA firms on the development and execution of case management strategies with very positive results. We have been very pleased with the legal advice and counsel provided by the law firms we have utilized who are affiliated with the Employment Law Alliance. The ELA firms we have worked with are customer focused, responsive, and thorough in their approach to handling labor and employment law matters.

Elizabeth Daly
Assistant General Counsel

Sanmina-SCI

Sanmina-SCI has facilities strategically located in key regions throughout the world. Our customers expect that we will provide them with the highest quality and most sophisticated services in the marketplace. We have that same expectation for the lawyers with whom we do business. With operations in 17 countries, we need to be certain that we have a team of lawyers working together to address our employment law needs worldwide. The ELA has delivered exactly what it promised-- seamless and consistent high quality services delivered in each locale around the globe. It has quickly become a key asset for our human resources department.

Starwood

We own, manage, and franchise hotels throughout the U.S. and in more than 90 countries. With more than 145,000 employees worldwide, ensuring that we comply with the complex web of local labor and employment laws in every one of these jurisdictions is a daunting task. The Employment Law Alliance has served as an important resource for us and we have benefited greatly from its expertise and long reach. When a legal dispute or issue has arisen in some far-flung place, Employment Law Alliance lawyers have always provided responsive, practical, and cost-effective assistance.

Wilmington Trust Corporation

Wilmington Trust has used the ELA to locate firms in California, Washington State, Georgia, and Europe. Our experience with the ELA lawyers with whom we have worked has always been one of complete satisfaction and prompt, practical advice.

Michael A. DiGregorio
General Counsel