FMLA / Rucker v. Lee Holding Print

On December 18, 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court in Maine’s decision regarding whether an employee met the eligibility requirements under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.  Rucker v. Lee Holding, First Cir. No 06-1633 (December 18, 2006)

In order for an employee to be eligible for FMLA leave, the employee must have been employed with the employer for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12-month period.  The Rucker case focused on the “employed for the employer for at least 12 months” eligibility component, as both parties conceded that the employee met the 1250 hours of service requirement.

The facts of this case are than the employee had previously worked for the employer for 5 years and had not worked for the employer for 5 years when he was rehired on June 5, 2005.  About 6 months later, he ruptured a disc in his back and took periods of medical leave.  He was terminated on March 7, 2005, approximately 9 months after he was rehired.

The employee filed suit alleging that he was terminated for taking FMLA leave.  The employer countered that the employee was not eligible for FMLA leave because he had not been employed for 12 months.

The parties suggested different interpretations of the Department of Labor regulation at issue, which stated in part that the “12 months an employee must have been employed need not be consecutive months.”  29 C.F.R. § 825.110(b).  The employer argued that this language was modified by the regulation as a whole to require some “continuing connection” with the employer, and the employee disagreed.

The US District Court Judge granted the employer’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the employee’s prior period of employment could not count toward satisfying the 12 month requirement because the intent of the regulation was to take into account only “brief interruptions.”  The District Court concluded that in the absence of legislative discussion or debate on the topic, Congress did not intend to impose on employers the “onerous requirement” of “allowing an employee to leave an employer for years or decades, only to return and immediately become an eligible employee under the twelve-month requirement.” 

The Court of Appeals reversed, based in significant part on an amicus curiae brief filed by the U. S. Department of Labor, solicited by the Court, which agreed with the employee’s legal position.

The First Circuit concluded that the statute (29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A)(ii)) and the regulation at issue (29 C.F.R. § 825.110(b)) were ambiguous.  The Court decided to give deference to the U.S Department of Labor’s “reasonable” interpretation of its regulation to the effect that the 12 month requirement “need not be consecutive months,” because it could discern no Congressional intent otherwise.  Congress had authorized the DOL to “prescribe such regulations as are necessary to carry out [the FMLA],” and the Department of Labor was entitled to “substantial deference” of its own interpretation of a regulation.

What does this case mean for employers?

The upshot of this case is that an employee’s remote period of employment may be used to satisfy the “12 months” employed eligibility criteria in any subsequent reemployment.  However, this case also serves as a reminder that the FMLA, as interpreted by the DOL, can be complex and sometimes punishes well-intentioned employers.  As an example, what happens if an employer with a “rolling” leave year provides an ineligible employee (e.g., worked less than 12 months or less than 1250 hours in 12 month period) a designated FMLA leave and the employee later requests an additional 12 week leave immediately upon becoming eligible?  If the employee meets the eligibility requirements for the subsequent leave, he is entitled to FMLA leave even though this would amount to 24 weeks of leave within a “leave year” because the first 12 weeks cannot count as FMLA leave as the employee was NOT eligible for such leave, according to the DOL.

Similarly, an employer policy expanding FMLA coverage to domestic partners or a class not currently authorized by the federal statute can create unintended consequences.  The FMLA allows an employee to take leave to care for “a spouse”.  Thus, an employer who, per the employer’s FMLA policy, designates 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the employee to take care of a domestic partner with a serious health condition may not preclude the otherwise eligible employee from taking an additional 12 weeks for that employee’s serious health condition even though this would amount to 24 weeks of leave within the “leave year.”  According to the DOL, an employer may not count FMLA leave against an employee’s leave year allotment when that leave is not specifically authorized by Federal law and, as pointed out in Rucker, the DOL’s interpretation of the FMLA is accorded substantial deference.

Issues involving  reduced schedule and intermittent leave,  transitional duty work, and the medical certification process (among others) arise frequently and all employers need to generally be cognizant of both the obligations imposed on them by the FMLA and the potential consequences for running afoul of this Federal law.

Feel free to contact any of the TMF attorneys to discuss this or any other legal matter.

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