The Southern District Court of New York has sent a case to trial that is a perfect example of why communication is integral to an employer’s FMLA compliance. In the case of Rengan v. FX Direct Dealer, LLC, the employer had provided a handbook to employees that set out employee entitlements to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave and a separate section providing eight weeks of paid maternity leave. There was no mention as to whether these provisions ran concurrently or consecutively, so the plaintiff in this case was unaware that the employer considered the two provisions to run concurrently and was fired when she didn’t return to work after 12 weeks off.
The Department of Labor sets out specific notice requirements for complying with FMLA. The employee timely submitted a formal request for time off via email, with the idea that it she was asking for maternity leave. The employer approved the leave and did not provide FMLA eligibility and return date notices, which would have put the plaintiff on notice that her leave was pursuant to FMLA from the start.
The employer had a sole Human Resource employee, Ms. Kesselman, who had no training as to the employer’s maternity leave and FMLA policies. She testified that her understanding was the two benefits ran concurrently, however, the handbook itself didn’t state such and no one had notified the plaintiff that her leave would be limited to 12 weeks total.
The company alleged that the plaintiff was notified verbally to return to work after 12 weeks of leave. The plaintiff sent emails asking for clarification of her leave status, but received no response.
The case came down to the determination that a jury could find that the plaintiff was not prejudiced by the defendant’s failure to notify the plaintiff and therefore cannot prevail on an FMLA interference action. While at the same time, a jury could find that defendant’s lack of notice deprived the plaintiff of a reasonable opportunity to return to work and resulted in plaintiff’s termination, so questions of fact existed.
Communication between employers and employees is the key to creating a proper understanding of employer provided benefits. We can learn a lot from situations like this. Make sure to fine tune employee handbooks in order to avoid any misunderstandings.