Alert to Tennessee Employers: Errors in Your Employee Manuals Can Cost You When it Comes to FMLA Litigation

A county road commission worker was able to deflect his employer’s attempt to defeat his Family and Medical Leave Act case by arguing that the employee was ineligible. Although the employee was, in fact, ineligible, the employer’s poorly worded employee manual appeared to promise FMLA coverage to the employee. That was enough for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the employee was allowed to go forward to trial with the argument that the employer should be legally barred from arguing about eligibility as a result of the misrepresentation and the employee’s reliance upon it.

The worker who sued was Terry Tilley, an employee of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission. In late July 2011, Tilley’s supervisor reprimanded him for failing to complete certain assignments on time. The supervisor imposed a new set of deadlines by which Tilley must have his work finished or else face additional punishment, including job termination. On the morning of the last day for completing one of the assignments, Tilley suffered a medical event that led to his admission to a hospital, from which he was not released until the next day.

A week and a half later, the employer terminated the employee. Tilley sued, accusing his employer of both FMLA interference and retaliation. The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer. Tilley could not maintain an FMLA case because he was not an eligible employee, and he was not eligible because his employer did not employ 50 or more employees within 75 miles of Tilley’s workplace, the trial court ruled.

The 6th Circuit threw out that decision. The employer and the trial court were correct that Tilley was not eligible for FMLA leave because the road commission had fewer than 50 employees situated within 75 miles of Tilley’s workplace. However, the employee should have been allowed to proceed with his argument that the employer was legally forbidden from raising this issue of Tilley’s ineligibility.

Under the law, an employer may be barred from making an argument if the employer made to the employee a clear misrepresentation of a material fact, the employee reasonably relied on that misstatement, and the employee’s reliance on the statement was ultimately to his detriment.

In Tilley’s case, the road commission’s employee manual stated that employees who worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months were covered. The manual neglected to qualify this statement by mentioning the 50-employee/75-mile eligibility rule. As written, the manual appeared to promise falsely that all employees working 1,250 or more hours in the previous calendar year were covered under the FMLA.

This misrepresentation, and the employee’s sworn testimony that he relied on it and its promise of FMLA coverage when he chose to leave work without finishing his assignment, were enough to raise a potential FMLA case. Tilley’s FMLA case should have been allowed to proceed to a trial.

This case provides a fairly clear warning for Tennessee employers. An employee who was ineligible for FMLA leave was able to take his FMLA case to trial merely because the employer issued its employees a badly worded manual that appeared to overstate the range of employees covered by the FMLA. If you, as a Tennessee employer, want to ensure that you’re doing everything necessary to protect yourself from FMLA litigation, you should consult with knowledgeable employment law counsel. The dedicated Tennessee FMLA attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert can help. Our attorneys can offer you the assistance you need to ensure that you have not opened yourself to unneeded exposure.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Sixth Circuit Upholds Ruling for Employer in FMLA, Pregnancy Discrimination Dispute, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 28, 2015

Employee Can Use Information Submitted Post-Termination to Prove Part of FMLA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 19, 2015

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