The Seventh Circuit just issued a decision clarifying and loosening the standard for an interference claim under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). In Ziccarelli v. Dart, the Court rejected the notion that in order to establish an interference claim under the FMLA, a plaintiff had to establish that there had been some denial of FMLA leave benefits.
The three judge panel ruled unanimously that Ziccarelli could proceed to trial on his FMLA interference claim when he alleged that his employer’s FMLA manager discouraged him from taking additional FMLA time by stating, “You’ve taken serious amounts of FMLA… don’t take any more FMLA. If you do so, you will be disciplined.” Following this conversation, Ziccarelli did not take leave but ended up retiring from his employer shortly thereafter and prior to any discipline being issued.
In analyzing the FMLA statute, the Court found that while an interference claim can include the denial of FMLA benefits, it also encompasses actions which might interfere or restrain either the exercise or the attempt to exercise FMLA rights. The Court distinguished earlier Seventh Circuit cases that included denial of leave as a part of the test to establish any interference claim. The Court noted that such interference could include situations where an employer fails to notify an employee of their FMLA rights after an employee provides information indicating the possible need for such leave, or otherwise engages in conduct that discourages employees from requesting FMLA leave. The panel found that while the FMLA was designed to accommodate the “legitimate interests of employers” the Court saw “no legitimate interest for employers in impeding access to FMLA benefits by subterfuge, concealment or intimidation.”
The Court noted that the parties had not fully litigated who the proper defendants are on the FMLA claim. The plaintiff in this case sued not only the employer, but also the individual FMLA manager and his supervisor. The Court noted that the FMLA defines an employer as “any person who acts directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” (Citing 29 U.S.C. §2611(4)(a)(ii)(I)). This is a reminder that individual supervisors and managers may be named and potentially held responsible for acts that are deemed ‘interfering’ in FMLA rights.
In light of this decision, it is imperative for employers to properly train management in how to address and respond to employees’ requests for time off – whether that employee uses the term ‘FMLA’ or not. Further, comments and statements made by supervisors in communications with employees about their use of time off, their absences from work, or their unavailability may be subject to greater scrutiny and form the basis of FMLA interference claims.