EMPLOYER’S STATEMENT IN EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK CAN TRIGGER FMLA OBLIGATIONS

Can an employer’s statement regarding the availability of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) provide employees with rights even if the FMLA doesn’t apply?  According to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is “yes.”  In Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission, No. 14-1679 (January 15, 2015), the employer maintained an employee handbook which stated that “employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.”  Although the FMLA only applies to employers who employ 50 employees within a 75 mile radius, the employee handbook did not contain any qualifying language which placed employees on notice that they might not be covered by the FMLA, or that other conditions would have to be met to qualify for FMLA coverage.

The employee, Tilley, missed work and sought leave under the FMLA based upon the language of the employee handbook, but was told that the FMLA did not apply.  After the employee was terminated from employment, he filed suit alleging that the employer had interfered with his rights under the FMLA.    

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Tilley.  It held that given the employer’s statements regarding the applicability of the Act and the availability of FMLA leave, the employee had properly relied upon the employer’s representations regarding coverage.  Thus, the employer was prevented from arguing that FMLA leave was not available even though the Act clearly did not apply to the employer.  

This case demonstrates the importance of maintaining handbooks and policies which are specific to each employer’s situation.  Policies and employee handbooks should be tailored to the employer based upon size, operations, and many other considerations.  When it comes to employee handbooks, one size does not fit all!  

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