Employers must be careful about treating employees as if the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies if, in fact, it does not apply. On January 26, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that Terry Tilley, an employee of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission (the “Commission”), could proceed with his FMLA claims even though he did not meet the FMLA’s definition of an “eligible employee.” Tilley v. Kalamazoo Cnty. Road Comm’n., 6th Cir., No. 14-1679, 1/26/15
Tilley received a warning that he would be terminated if an assignment was not completed by a certain date. On the day the assignment was due, Tilley said he experienced heart attack symptoms, and he went to the hospital. Tilley’s wife told the Commission that he would not be able to work for at least several days. He did not finish the assignment. The Commission informed Tilley that he was eligible for FMLA leave, but shortly thereafter terminated his employment for failing to complete the assignment by the deadline.
Tilley claimed that the Commission had interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave. These claims failed because Tilley was not eligible to take FMLA leave. The Commission did not employ at least 50 employees within 75 miles of Tilley’s work site. However, the Court said Tilley could proceed on whether the Commission was equitably estopped from claiming he was ineligible for FMLA benefits.
The Commission’s personnel manual said, “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.” It said nothing about the other requirements for eligibility, including that Tilley would be covered only if the Commission employed at least 50 employees within 75 miles of his work site.
Tilley claimed that he sought medical treatment before completing his assignment because the personnel manual said he was eligible for FMLA. Tilley also claimed that had he known that he was not eligible for FMLA leave, he would have had someone drive him to work to put the “brief finishing touches” on his assignment. The Commission argued that Tilley’s claim that he consulted the personnel manual before seeking treatment in a medical emergency was “wholly incredible.” Nonetheless, the Court wrote that Tilley’s credibility was a question for the jury.
Employers should carefully review their FMLA policies to avoid these types of unintended consequences.