Employer’s Extra Demands of Worker Seeking FMLA Leave Allow Interference Case to Proceed

Employers often concern themselves with making sure that employees are not misusing resources or benefits available to them. While an employer has certain latitude in terms of, say, using tracking software to monitor employees’ use of company-provided internet, things can be different when it comes to statutorily guaranteed rights like leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In one recent case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with an employee after her employer demanded extra documentation related to her FMLA absences, even though it had no proof that she was abusing the FMLA leave process.

The employee was a social worker employed by a hospice agency. After a year and a half on the job, the social worker started using FMLA leave to care for her parents. For nine months, the process transpired without any major issues. Then, in March 2014, the social worker’s mother became seriously ill. The employee took another FMLA absence to deal with this. This time, the employer issued a demand for proof that the mother had an FMLA-qualifying condition. The employer also demanded that the worker produce other documents like travel receipts to back up her alleged basis for using the leave. (The employer had never made any such demands before late March 2014.) The employer additionally issued a warning in a memo about the negative impacts of the employee’s “continued time away.”

The social worker eventually sued for FMLA interference and retaliation. The employer received summary judgment in the trial court, but the employee appealed, and, before the appeals court, she won.

The evidence the employee gave to the trial court was enough to make out a potential FMLA interference claim, so she should have been able to present her case to a jury. There were several things that potentially raised issues of fact, but, according to the court, the most obvious instance tending to show the employer impermissibly discouraged the social worker from taking FMLA leave was the memo that said the employee’s “continued unpaid time away from the workplace compromises the quality of care we are able to provide as an organization.” This language was potentially problematic for the employer because, according to the court’s ruling, it would not be unreasonable for a jury to conclude that this admonition was a veiled threat that the additional use of FMLA leave could place the social worker at risk of losing her job (which, ultimately, she did).

The travel receipts or other “supporting documentation” demand was another potential problem for the employer. The FMLA has some clear standards regarding the documentation an employer can demand of an employee seeking to use FMLA leave. When the employer in this case demanded paperwork from a medical provider establishing that the mother had an FMLA-qualifying condition, that was fine because the FMLA regulations allow this. The travel receipts demand was problematic, however. The law requires employees to have a valid need for leave and also demands that they provide notice to their employer as soon as it is practical. This employer’s asking for travel receipts, though, had no connection to proving either the employee’s need or the timeliness of her leave requests.

The flaw in this employer’s approach was clear to the court:  the employer appeared to suspect that the worker was possibly using some or all of these leave days for something other than caring for her parents. Even assuming requests like this employer’s were permissible, they can only be permissible if the employer had a reasonable basis for believing that the employee was abusing FMLA leave. The major problem for the employer here was that there was “nothing in the record” that pointed to any malfeasance on the social worker’s part. In light of this, the appeals court concluded that a reasonable jury could decide that the employer’s new requirements were really just a way of trying to discourage the social worker from using her FMLA leave, in violation of the law.

FMLA leave is an important statutory right provided to workers. Employers are allowed to take certain steps to ensure that employees are not abusing FMLA leave. However, if you, as an employer, suspect abuse of FMLA leave, it is important to tread carefully lest you trigger liability for FMLA interference. Whether you are an employee who has encountered FMLA interference, or you are an employer, you should talk to the Georgia FMLA attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert about your FMLA interference issues. Our attorneys have spent many years dealing with these issues and can provide you with reliable advice and aggressive representation.

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

More blog posts:

Sixth Circuit Revives FMLA Interference Case Against Employer that Delayed Reinstating Employee From Leave, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Dec. 28, 2016

The Options Tennessee Employers Have When They Detect Perceived FMLA Leave Misuse, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 2, 2016

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