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Changes to Employer Responsibilities under the Family Medical Leave Act

Employers should be aware of a recent court decision regarding their responsibilities in considering an employee’s request for a medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA is a federal statute, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees. It requires an employer to provide “qualified employees” with up to 12 weeks of leave in a year for family or personal medical circumstances. The court case which was just decided clarified who is responsible for determining whether an employee is eligible for FMLA and what steps employers have to take before they make a decision about eligibility.

Under the FMLA, qualified employees are defined as those who have worked for at least 12 months, and at least 1250 hours during the prior 12 months. In addition to allowing an employee leave for his/her personal medical issues, leave can be taken to care for certain family members with medical issues. These include a spouse, child, or parent who has a “serious health condition.” It can also include grandparents or others who sit “in loco parentis” – that is, individuals who served as a primary caregiver when the employee was under 18.

In Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont) looked at whether the employee has to provide all necessary information that he/she is eligible for FMLA when requesting leave, or is the employer obligated to request additional information before making a determination. The employee in the case requested FMLA leave to care for a grandparent. The employer denied the request, without requesting additional information, on the grounds that FMLA does not cover grandparents. Coutard stayed home anyway, and was fired.

The employee argued that it was the duty of the employer to ask for additional information regarding the relationship with his grandparent to determine if in loco parentis applied. However, the employer asserted that it was the employee’s burden to provide information to support the claimed entitlement to leave at the time requested. The District Court agreed with the employer and dismissed the case.

The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and sent the matter back to the trial court for additional proceedings. In putting the burden on employers, the Circuit held that once an employee provides information which indicates he may be entitled to FMLA leave, the employer is obligated to request any additional information needed to make a determination of eligibility.

For employers, the Circuit’s decision means they should revisit their FMLA policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the law. Specifically, they should make sure of the following:

  • Requests for FMLA must be given full consideration and necessary information must be requested in the event there is any reasonable argument for entitlement. This is true regardless of whether the eligibility issue involves the type of family relationship or the nature of a medical issue.
  • While it may be awkward to ask an employee for information about a medical condition, an employer may question the existence of a legitimate medical issue and determine whether it counts as a “serious health condition.” In these cases, employers should request that the employee provide a “medical certification” from the health care provider.
  • Employers should keep careful records of what information they requested and what was provided in case a denial of leave is ever challenged.

If you are concerned about how to handle a FMLA request, contact a qualified attorney.

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This post does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship.

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