Recent decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit have provided guidance for employers as to their rights and responsibilities under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
On June 28, 2016, the Court issued its opinion in the case of Vannoy v. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, in which it held that an employer may be liable for a violation of the FMLA even if it grants an employee’s request for medical leave. The Court found that a defective “Rights and Responsibilities” notice which omitted information about the right to reinstatement may have interfered with the employee’s understanding and exercise of his rights under the FMLA.
Vannoy, an employee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, was battling depression and alcoholism. The bank was aware of this condition and made efforts to accommodate his condition. In November 2010, Vannoy was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment where it was recommended that he complete a 30-day inpatient rehabilitation program. Around this time, the bank granted his request for one month of leave under the FMLA (which was submitted as an application for short term disability). The bank sent Vannoy a notice of his FMLA rights and responsibilities, but the notice did not include any reference to job protection rights under the FMLA. Vannoy returned to work with a doctor’s note before the expiration of the month of approved FMLA leave and did not enter into the recommended inpatient treatment program. Vannoy testified that he was fearful that taking extended time off from work would result in termination. Vannoy was subsequently terminated after failing to report for a three-day work assignment in Baltimore. In his suit against the bank, Vannoy claimed that he would have stayed on leave longer if he was aware of his restoration rights.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s finding of summary judgment in favor of the bank, and held that there was sufficient evidence to show that Vannoy would have exercised his rights under the FMLA differently had he known his job would be protected. Thus, the Fourth Circuit found that the evidence presented was sufficient to show prejudice to Vannoy for the bank’s failure to provide the requisite notice of the right to reinstatement under the FMLA.
On October 31, 2016, the Court decided the case of Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., holding that the termination of an employee for fraudulently using FMLA leave is not considered “retaliation” under the FMLA. Sharif, an employee of United, took a scheduled vacation with his wife (also a United employee) from March 16 through April 4, 2016. Sharif was unable to obtain approval for his scheduled shift on March 30, 2016, and on the morning of March 30, 2016, Sharif called United and requested intermittent FMLA leave pursuant to an existing FMLA certification for an anxiety disorder. United noticed the suspicious timing of the FMLA request for the only shift Sharif was scheduled to work in the middle of his vacation and mounted an investigation. Upon questioning, Sharif provided a number of inconsistent stories regarding his understanding of his schedule that day, including suffering a panic attack and an inability to secure a return flight back to the United States. Upon receiving notice of United’s intent to terminate his employment in light of the FMLA abuse and lying during the investigation, Sharif decided to retire. Subsequently, Sharif filed suit against United, alleging retaliation for his use of FMLA leave.
The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of United. The Court relied on the FMLA’s implementation of regulations that an employee who fraudulently obtains FMLA leave is not protected by the Act’s provisions. The Court stressed the importance of preventing the FMLA from being abused and held that United had made a “reasonably informed and considered” decision before terminating Sharif.
These recent Fourth Circuit cases it make clear that employers should be fully aware of both their rights and responsibilities under the FMLA in order to avoid costly litigation. While the Court has confirmed an employer’s right to terminate employees after a thorough investigation into FMLA abuse, it has also confirmed that employers should always ensure compliance with FMLA requirements in issuing notices to employees regarding their rights under the FMLA.