It’s no secret that training managers about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can appear to be expensive for employers. But what happens when managers haven’t received enough training on the FMLA?
A recent decision by a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts clearly illustrates the dangers an employer can encounter. In this case, the lack of training resulted in the employer having to pay its former employee almost $300,000 plus interest.
Here’s what happened
Here, the plaintiff-employee worked as a direct-care worker at the employer’s group home. The plaintiff operated under a supervisor, who in turn was supervised by the program manager. The entire operation was overseen by the program supervisor. The plaintiff was scheduled to work April 17 through 21, 2013.
On April 15—two days before the beginning of the plaintiff’s scheduled work week—the plaintiff’s son drove her to the emergency room due to mental health issues that arose suddenly on the previous day. At the plaintiff’s request, her son contacted her employer that day and advised that the plaintiff was in the emergency room and unable to work.
On April 16, the plaintiff was transported to a psychiatric hospital. On that same day, the program manager called the son to inquire about the plaintiff’s condition. The son advised the program manager that his mother had been hospitalized and that he was not sure when she would be able to return to work.
On April 17, the son talked to his mother’s immediate supervisor and told her that his mother was still hospitalized and unable to work. Based on the supervisor’s advice, the son then contacted the employer’s human resources (HR) department to apply for short-term disability benefits for his mother. On that same day, someone in the HR department prepared and signed a benefits packet and FMLA documentation acknowledging that the plaintiff was on a medical leave of absence.
On April 18, the plaintiff was transferred to a different hospital. As the son drove to the new hospital that day, the program manager called him and angrily asked whether his mother could speak. Although the son replied that his mother was able to speak, the jury later heard evidence that she was unintelligible at that time and that she was incapable of making decisions or following the employer’s policies during her hospitalization. However, instead of asking additional questions about the plaintiff’s condition, the program manager told the son that it was unacceptable for him to call instead of his mother and that he should not call again.
The program manager subsequently informed the HR vice president that the plaintiff was hospitalized and unable to work. However, because the plaintiff had missed work without personally notifying her immediate supervisor, the program manager reported on April 22 that the plaintiff had violated the employer’s no-call-no-show policy. Based on this report, the HR vice president prepared a letter stating that the plaintiff had been terminated effective April 21, and she presented this letter to the program supervisor for his signature. The program supervisor, who was not told that the plaintiff had been hospitalized, ultimately signed the termination letter without any further inquiry.
The plaintiff was later released from the hospital; and on April 25, her doctor faxed a medical certificate to the employer indicating that the plaintiff needed a leave of absence and that she could return to work on May 24. The plaintiff then visited her employer’s HR department, submitted her doctor’s statement saying that she had been hospitalized, and provided all other information requested by the employer.
Five days later, when the plaintiff returned to her employer to sign some additional paperwork, the HR vice president asserted that the plaintiff had abandoned her job by failing to personally report her absences. The HR vice president did not seek any additional information about the circumstances of the plaintiff’s absences or the FMLA leave she had requested. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff received the termination letter signed by the program supervisor.
Lawsuit filed and damages awarded
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant-employer for interfering with her rights under the FMLA and for her termination. After a 3-day trial, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff amounting to $142,041.24, including $112,592.34 in lost wages and $29,448.90 in lost benefits.
However, the matter did not stop there. In addition to any lost wages, lost benefits, and interest, an employee whose FMLA rights have been violated is generally entitled to an additional amount of liquidated damages equal to that sum—unless the employer can show that its actions were done in good faith. Put another way, unless an employer can show that it had objectively reasonable grounds for believing that its acts were not in violation of the FMLA, the employer may be liable for double the amount of damages awarded by the jury—the sum of all lost wages, benefits, and interest, and an equal amount in the form of liquidated damages.
In this case, the court found that the employer had not acted in good faith. Why? In truth, many factors played a role here. For instance, not only did no one tell the program supervisor about the plaintiff’s hospitalization, but the program supervisor himself failed to inquire about her condition before terminating her. Additionally, the court found that the program manager had violated the employer’s own policies by barring the plaintiff’s son from calling about his mother’s condition. Other factors cited by the court included the employer’s apparent failure to seek legal counsel before terminating the plaintiff, its failure to ask the plaintiff why she had not personally notified the employer of her absences, and its failure to reconsider the termination decision after she provided proof of her hospitalization.
However, an important factor in the court’s conclusion that the employer had not acted in good faith was the employer’s failure to fully train its supervisors on the requirements of the FMLA. Although the program manager had the authority to make termination decisions, the court found it highly relevant that she had received little FMLA training. The court also noted that other relevant actors, including the plaintiff’s immediate supervisor and the HR employee who prepared her benefit’s packet, had received only limited FMLA training at best.
Because the employer had not acted in good faith, the court concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to an award of liquidated damages equal to the amount awarded by the jury. With the stroke of a pen, the jury award of $142,041.24 was doubled to $284,082.48, plus interest on both amounts accruing from the date of the plaintiff’s termination.
The only good news for the employer was that the court refused to award an additional amount in front pay. In some FMLA cases, a court can award the employee an equitable amount representing what she might have earned in salary and benefits if she were simply reinstated in her old position at the close of trial. Here, however, although the plaintiff sought 10 years’ worth of front pay, the court found that such an award would be too speculative and that the plaintiff had been adequately compensated for her loss of employment by the jury’s award of lost wages and benefits and the court’s award of liquidated damages.
Key observations from the court
In its decision, the court made some key observations about the applicability of the FMLA to the facts of this case:
- The FMLA expressly allows a family member to provide notice of the need for leave if the employee is unable to do so herself.
- When an employee’s need for FMLA leave is unforeseeable, she is excused from complying with the employer’s usual procedural requirements for leave if she is unable to use the phone.
- In all cases, the employer should inquire further about whether an employee is seeking FMLA leave and the circumstances and details of why the leave needs to be taken.
Yes, FMLA training for supervisors may involve some cost. However, as this case shows, the failure to train can be even more expensive.
For more information
For more information, see Boadi v. Center for Human Development, Inc., No. 14-30162, 2017 WL 4181347 (D. Mass. Sept. 21, 2017).
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