Attorney J. Scott Falls and summer law clerk/law student Emily Nellermoe’s article on the mistakes employers make in assessing FMLA leave has been selected for publication by the South Carolina Lawyer magazine. It was published as the cover story of South Carolina Lawyer in the January 2014 edition. Employees who work for employers with more than 50 employees should read the article to understand their rights under the FMLA. If you have an FMLA question or concern, please contact us. Click on the link above to read the article.
Today I am releasing Part Two of the three part series in “What is My Case Really Worth?” Part Two focuses on Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA“) cases. As we all know, the FMLA entitles an employee who has been working with a company for a year or more to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition; to care for a parent, spouse, or child with a serious medical condition; or for the birth, adoption, or beginning of foster care for a child. We also know that an employer must employ 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the employee’s workplace for them to fall under the Act. An employee using FMLA leave is entitled to have their same position (or a comparable position in terms of pay, advancement opportunities, and duties) restored to them upon returning from FMLA leave. I have written extensively on ways that an employer can interfere with or retaliate against employees for using FMLA leave. We also know that you do NOT need to file an EEOC complaint to bring an FMLA claim. Assuming you have a valid FMLA claim, what damages are you entitled to under the law?
Back pay is the most often awarded damage in FMLA cases. There is no cap on back pay. Back pay includes all of the wages, salary, bonuses, commissions, and benefits (health insurance, 401k, paid time off, life insurance, etc.) lost because of FMLA interference or retaliation MINUS any amount you earned in the interim. It also includes interest, overtime, shift differentials, and raises you would have received had you not been terminated. One thing that is difficult for employees to understand is that your back pay is cut-off and stops if you get a new job making the same amount of money (or more) as your old job. For example, if you are terminated for using FMLA leave on December 1st but get a new job making the same amount or more one week later, you would be entitled to back damages for one week of pay only! However, if you are unemployed for a year and cannot find a new job, your back pay would be for one year. You have to keep looking for jobs and submitting applications while your case is in court! Your continued search for subsequent comparable employment is a crucial part of mitigating your damages. And in case you are asking, “how will my old employer even know that I am working now?,” they are going to request copies of your tax returns during the course of discovery and you will be obligated to give these up. Also worth noting, if you accept a new job but it makes less than your old job, you are still entitled to the difference in wages between your old job and new job to the present time. For example if you were making $50,000 per year as a store manager before being terminated, but then two months later find a new job as an assistant manager at a smaller store making $35,000 per year, you would be entitled to back pay for the full two months while you weren’t working, plus $15,000 annually thereafter (the difference between your old and new job) until the matter is resolved.
LIQUIDATED DAMAGES (“DOUBLE DAMAGES”), PLUS INTEREST
Unlike Title VII and the ADA, the FMLA provides for liquidated damages. I call liquidated damages “double damages” because they are typically calculated by multiplying your back pay times two. By statute, liquidated damages are assumed for a violation of the FMLA. However, an employer can avoid liquidated damages if they can prove that the action or omission was in good faith and that they had an objective reasonable ground to believe that the act or omission did not violate the FMLA. Courts have found that good faith requires proof that the employer took affirmative steps to comply with the FMLA. Liquidated damages are the rule, not the exception, and the burden is on the employer to establish that their actions were taken in good faith. That is a bonus for employees!
REINSTATEMENT OR FRONT PAY, AT THE COURT’S DISCRETION
Although most employees do not want to go back to work for the employer that interfered with or retaliated against them for using FMLA leave and that they are now suing, reinstatement to your prior position with your old employer is an option under the FMLA. In my experience, and for perhaps obvious reasons, reinstatement is not a viable or common remedy in employment law cases.
If the Court does not award reinstatement, they might order that an award of “front pay” is appropriate. Front pay is available at the court’s discretion for employees who are still unemployed and where it appears unlikely that the employee will be able to get a new job for some time into the future. The court estimates out how long it is likely before the employee could find a new comparable job and awards pay up until that future point in time. You do not get front pay if you have a new job that is making the same or more than your old job. Unlike back pay, front pay is determined by the judge and not the jury and just because the jury awards you back pay does not mean that the judge will award you front pay.
ATTORNEY’S FEES AND COSTS
Reasonable attorney’s fees and costs are awarded, if you prevail.
COMPENSATORY AND PUNITIVE DAMAGES NOT PERMITTED
The biggest difference between FMLA cases and other types of employment related lawsuits is that the FMLA does NOT provide for punitive or compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are also called actual damages and include emotional distress, physical distress, pain and suffering (grief, anxiety, depression, embarrassment), medical bills, and mental impairment. Punitive damages are commonly referred to as “punishment damages” and punish the company for the wrong-doing, hopefully deterring them from committing the same offenses in the future. These damages are NOT permitted under the FMLA (perhaps the trade-off for allowing liquidated damages, as discussed above). In South Carolina, we do have a state cause of action called “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and employees can sometimes plead this cause of action if they have suffered severe emotional distress. This cause of action does not have a cap and permits both compensatory and punitive damages. You must have proof of mental suffering (psychiatric treatment notes, etc.) and this cause of action can sometimes open you up to a mental examination from the other side and require retaining expert witnesses, which can be expensive. However, it is an option if the facts support that you have sought significant psychiatric treatment from the employer’s actions. Not all FMLA cases will support a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If you have a valid FMLA claim, you are likely to receive your back pay if you prevail. You might also receive liquidated/double damages if the employer cannot put up a good faith reason for interfering with or retaliating against you for using or seeking FMLA leave. This burden is on the employer and not you! You cannot get compensatory or punitive damages but attorney’s fees and costs may be awarded. It is also worthy of note that FMLA cases generally have high jury appeal. Someone who has been fired or retaliated against for using FMLA leave due to a serious health condition or a family member’s serious health condition can present a very sympathetic case that jury members can often relate to. It is also important to remember that the FMLA provides for both employer and INDIVIDUAL liability so both your old employer and all of the individuals personally involved in making or taking action against your FMLA leave can be sued (i.e., your supervisor, HR director, etc.)
Today and tomorrow the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument on how America defines marriage. It is unlikely that the final written decision will be issued until June so we will have to wait until then to find out. IF the Supreme Court establishes a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, there may be enough public support for Congress to amend employment laws, including Title VII and the FMLA, to prohibit discrimination or retaliation based upon sexual orientation and to amend the definition of “spouse” in the FMLA regulations so that all same-sex married couples are included. All eyes will be on Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, to see the kinds of questions he poses today during oral argument. Sometimes you can gauge the direction a decision is likely to go by the types of questions the Justice asks.
Without any doubt, this is the question that I am asked most often. The story generally goes something along these lines….
“I have been working for X company for Y number of years (generally more than three) and have always had good performance appraisals and no disciplinary action. Now, my supervisor is [harassing me, treating me unfairly, changing my job duties, or some other form of unwanted action] and I think I might be fired soon.”
As you may already know, South Carolina is an “at-will” employment state. This means that an employer can fire you for any reason in the world as long as it does not violate a federal or state law. Now, sometimes employees have contracts with employers which changes things. If you have you have an employment contract with your employer, then you are most likely not an at-will employee. I always ask potential clients to give me a copy of any Employee Handbook they have or any contract documents that may have been given to them when they began their job. If you do not have a contract with the company, generally your employer can fire you for about any reason. The old saying goes that an employer can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, or absolutely no reason at all. While this does not always seem fair, it is the very essence of at-will employment and the law of this state.
Alas, however, all is not lost. Employees do have some protections available under the law. Employers cannot fire you because of your gender (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), race, age, disability, use of FMLA leave, attempts to use FMLA leave, religion, national origin, or because you complained about perceived discrimination of any of the above. Employers also cannot fire you because you complained to them about overtime pay that was owed to you but that you have not been paid for. In South Carolina, it is also wrongful termination if your employer fires you for complaining to the LLR for unpaid wages or for forcing you to break the law in order to keep your job.
I always ask potential clients if they think the unfair treatment they are complaining about is due to any of the above categories. If the answer is yes and you have not been terminated yet, the next step is to complain in writing to your supervisor or your supervisor’s supervisor and to get a lawyer involved. Go all the way up the chain if you need to. If you have an employee handbook, it will likely provide information on the proper party to complain to and the proper method for filing a complaint with the company. A written complaint is always better than a verbal complaint because it can be easily proven. You need to document the complaint in writing and keep a copy of the complaint for your own records. This is very important. Once an employer gets a complaint of this nature, they have a legal duty to conduct an investigation.
Employees are often fearful of what will happen to them if they complain about their employer’s treatment. Some fear repercussions at work if they complain. Federal employment laws were written with this legitimate fear of retaliation in mind and these laws prohibit employers from retaliating against you for complaining about actual or perceived discrimination or illegal employment actions. This is even the case if you complain about discrimination that is being taken against another employer and not against you personally. Despite nearly every employee protection law containing a prohibition against retaliation against the complaining employee, this certainly does not mean that employers do not retaliate against complaining employees all of the time! In the event that your employer does retaliate against you for your complaint, however, you will likely have a stronger lawsuit against the company if that becomes necessary down the road.
Often times you will also need to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and let them get an investigation going. I always prefer that clients contact me BEFORE they get terminated because I can help walk them through the steps of a written complaint and get the EEOC process started. If you have already been fired, however, do not fret – all is not lost. You can still file an EEOC complaint and should always speak with an attorney. Another important thing to remember is that if you are thinking of quitting or the company is asking for your resignation, this may prevent you from getting unemployment benefits. You should never quit or resign before speaking with an attorney first because this can greatly impact any potential case you might have. The internet has a great deal of information available about filing EEOC complaints and employment discrimination. The EEOC, the DOL, and the LLR all have quite informative websites, so you should be sure to check those out as well.
Twenty years ago today, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law, which went into effect August, 5, 1993, six months later. The bill was a major part of President Clinton’s agenda in his first term. In the past twenty years, the FMLA has caused MAJOR headaches for employers. As reported in a prior blog post, the FMLA provides employees with 12 weeks of UNPAID leave during any 12-month period to attend to a serious health condition of the employee, parent, spouse, or child, or for pregnancy or care of a newborn child, adoption, or foster care of a child. In order to qualify, your employer has to employ at least 50 people and you have to have been employed for 12 months.
And while the FMLA is seemingly so young at only twenty years old (only one more year before being of legal age to purchase alcohol!… if it were a person and not a statute of course) there is a significant amount of case law that has developed over the past two decades that interpret the Act’s statutory language and the intent of the legislature in enacting it. The different federal circuits have come to differing conclusions on some issues, but have agreed on others. The United States Supreme Court has weighed in on the statutory employee benefit from time to time.
Not to be outdone, President Bush signed into law H.R. 4986, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 (“NDAA”), which amends the FMLA and broadens its scope to apply to members of the armed services and their families while they are home from deployment. Case law is still developing as to the FMLA amendments, but the changes do not dramatically change the FMLA or its very essence.
Some of my most interesting cases have dealt with FMLA leave when an employer has interfered with or retaliated against an employee for using this leave. I thought I would highlight the most common complaints I receive about FMLA from prospective clients and then provide a brief synopsis of what you can do if you believe this is happening to you.
1) Right after my employer found out I am was going to take FMLA leave, they started treating me different. (i.e., giving me different job duties, making up things I did wrong, isolating me, etc.)
2) As soon as my employer found I was going to take FMLA and/or as soon as I returned from FMLA leave, I was fired. (I call these suspicious timing cases)
3) Employer never specifically requested medical certification in writing or gave me 15 days to get the certification and then said that I was supposed to do this.
4) While I was out on FMLA leave, my boss continuously contacted me asking me when I was coming back and checked on my medical status.
First, these are only a BRIEF sampling of some of the ways that employers can retaliate/interfere with your FMLA leave. Nevertheless, they are some of the more common complaints that I receive. Regarding 1 & 2, these are what I call “retaliation claims.” Smart employers know better than to terminate employees right around the time that they take or return from FMLA but they still do it all the time! Often times, they try to peg the termination on performance deficiencies they believe were present before they even knew you were taking FMLA leave. Sometimes that is in fact the case and the employee has long-standing performance problems. But other times, employers try to manufacture performance deficiencies to hide their true motive and we have to flesh these factual disputes out during the process that is called “discovery.” Regarding 3, an employer can in fact request IN WRITING that you obtain medical certification to substantiate your need for FMLA leave but they must give you 15 days to return the form. Often times, employers will ORALLY request a certification and this does not comply with the rule. Then they try to penalize the employee for never obtaining the proper certification when they never complied with the rules in the first place. Lastly, number 4 is an issue I have in a case I am currently litigating in federal court. Employers are not allowed to “interfere” with your FMLA leave and this includes actions that would tend to “chill” or deter you from using your leave. Badgering employees while they are on leave and asking them to check-in on a regular basis, send in weekly status updates, and do even menial work has been held by courts to constitute interference. If you believe that any of these things are happening to you, you should call an attorney immediately to discuss your rights. In the meantime, let’s wish the FMLA a happy 20th birthday!
The FMLA causes confusion among both employers and employees, partly due to the notice requirements that it mandates for both employees seeking to take FMLA leave and for employers that have an employee asking to take leave for reasons that may fall under the protection provided to the employee by the FMLA. To complicate things even more for both employees and employers, new legislation and regulations affecting the FMLA became effective in January 2008 and January 2009, respectively.
This discussion will deal with the notice requirements that an eligible FMLA employee must provide to his or her employer in order to be placed on FMLA leave. This discussion assumes that the employee is an eligible employee under the FMLA and that the employer is an eligible employer under the FMLA.
Time Requirements for an Employee’s Notification of the Need for FMLA Leave
An employee’s obligation to provide notice of the need for FMLA leave differs depending upon whether the forthcoming leave is foreseeable or unforeseeable in nature. If the leave is foreseeable, such as most leaves are for pregnancy or necessary, but not emergency surgeries, then the employee must provide the employer at least 30 days advance notice before FMLA leave is to begin. It is always a good idea for an employee with the need for foreseeable leave to consult with his or her employer before actually scheduling the medical treatment, if at all possible, so that the treatment can be scheduled for a time when it would not unduly disrupt the employer’s business and operations. If the employee fails to give 30 days notice of foreseeable leave and provides no reasonable excuse for his delay in providing notice, then the employer can delay the employee’s leave for 30 days after when notice is actually provided. This can be a risky course of action for the employer, however, because the employer must make sure that all proper notices of the employee’s right to FMLA leave were provided to the employee in order to delay the leave.
In cases of unforeseeable leave, where providing 30 days notice is not practicable, because of a lack of knowledge of approximately when the leave will be required to begin, a change of circumstances, or a medical emergency, then notice must be given by the employee as soon as practicable. For example, an employee’s health condition may require leave to begin earlier than initially anticipated before the birth of a child, such as in situations where there are unexpected complications related to a pregnancy before the child is actually due. In these situations, employees must give the employer notice of the need for leave “as soon as practicable” – clearly not a black and white guideline. Essentially, “as soon as practicable” means as soon as practical and possible, taking into account all of the surrounding facts and circumstances of the particular case and the particular employee’s condition and reason for leave. Typically, this can be accomplished where the employee provides the employer with notice of the need for leave within the same time frame as he would be required to do so under the employer’s regular guidelines for taking sick or medical leave. In the case of a medical emergency requiring leave, however, advance notice may not be required at all as it would simply be impossible to provide under emergency circumstances.
The Content of the Employee’s Notice of the Need for FMLA Leave
In addition to the time requirements, an employee must provide the employer with sufficient and proper notice of his need for FMLA leave. At a bare minimum, an employee must provide at least verbal notice sufficient to make the employer aware that the employee needs leave that would qualify as FMLA leave, and the anticipated timing and duration of the leave. Essentially, the employee must provide enough information about his need for leave and reasons for needing to take the leave to allow the employer to determine whether or not the requested leave should be classified as FMLA leave.
While the employer must provide sufficient information regarding the reason for his absence, courts have held that an employee does not have to specifically mention or reference the FMLA in connection with his request for leave or specifically state to the employer that he would like to assert his right to take FMLA leave. In other words, there are no magic words required – only that the employee provide enough information to inform the employer that the need for leave would likely qualify as FMLA leave. On the same note, an employee’s failure to comply with an employer’s formal policy (typically contained in an employee handbook), will not prevent the leave from being FMLA protected leave.
In the case of leave for an employee’s own medical condition, the employer may further inquire into the nature of the serious health condition and may even request a medical certification from the employee’s physician to support the employee’s need for leave. An employee has an obligation to respond to an employer’s questions if they are for the purpose of determining whether or not the requested leave is FMLA-qualifying.
Employees taking FMLA leave should be aware that, under certain circumstances, an employer may require an employee to provide a fitness-for-duty certification upon their return to work stating that the employee is physically able to return to their position. As a condition of restoring an employee whose FMLA leave was occasioned by the employee’s own serious health condition that made the employee unable to perform the employee’s job, an employer may have a uniformly-applied policy or practice that requires all similarly situated employees (i.e. same occupation, same serious health condition) who take leave for such conditions to obtain and present certification from the employee’s health care provider that the employee is able to resume work. Under 29 C.F.R. §825.312(a), an employee returning to work from FMLA leave has the same obligations to participate and cooperate in the fitness-for-duty certification process as in the initial FMLA leave certification process.
Essentially, the certification from the employee’s health care provider must certify that the employee is able to resume work. Under the recent revisions to the FMLA, an employer may also require that the certification specifically address the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the the job. In order to require these specific certifications, however, an employer must provide an employee with a list of the essential functions of the employee’s job by no later than when the designation of FMLA leave notice is provided by the employer to the employee and the notice must specifically indicate in that the certification must address the employee’s ability to perform those essential job functions. If an employer fails to notify the employee of the requirement for a fitness-for-duty certification upon his return to work from leave, then the employer may not require such a certification from the employee.
An employer may not delay the employee’s return to work for the purpose of clarifying or authenticating a certification with the employee’s health care provider and an employer may not require a second or third opinion on the employee’s fitness to return to work. If an employer provides the proper notice of the requirement of a fitness-for-duty certification to the employee, an employee who does not provide the fitness-for-duty certification upon his return to work or who does not request additional FMLA leave is not longer entitled to reinstatement of his position under the FMLA.
There are some different rules that apply to employees on intermittent or reduced FMLA leave. An employer is generally not entitled to a certification of fitness to return to duty for each absence taken on an intermittent or reduced leave schedule. An employer may require a certification, however, for such absences up to once every 30 days if reasonable safety concerns exist regarding the employee’s ability to perform his duties, based on the serious health condition for which the employee took such FMLA leave. If an employer chooses to require a fitness-for-duty certification under such circumstances, the employer must inform the employee at the same time it issues the designation notice that for each subsequent instance of intermittent or reduced schedule leave, the employee will be required to submit a fitness-for-duty certification unless one has already been submitted within the last 30 days. A reasonable safety concern means a reasonable belief of significant risk of harm to the individual employee or others. An employer may not terminate the employment of the employee while awaiting such a certification of fitness to return to duty for an intermittent or reduced schedule leave absence.
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§2601-2654, makes it unlawful for covered employers to terminate or otherwise discipline an eligible employee for taking up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (or 26 weeks to care for a covered servicemember with a serious illness or injury incurred in the line of duty on active duty) off from work in any 12-month period to:
(1) care for a newborn child;
(2) care for a seriously ill spouse, parent, or child;
(3) care for the employee’s own personal serious health condition;
(4) care for a covered servicemember with a serious illness or injury incurred in the line of duty on active duty; or
(5) use for “any qualifying exigency” arising out of the fact that a covered military family member is on active duty or called to active duty status in support of a contingency operation.
The FMLA applies to employers with 50 or more employees (including part-time employees) and to employees who have been employed by the employer for at least 12 months, worked for the employer for at least 1,250 hours, and are employed at a location where the employer employs at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius.
A “serious health condition” is defined as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment under the FMLA.
Eligible employees are entitled as a matter of right to take FMLA leave. The FMLA also provides further protection to covered employees through an anti-retaliation provision. The FMLA prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who opposes violations of the Act. This means that it is unlawful for an employer to discharge or discriminate in any other manner against an individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by the FMLA.
The FMLA is a tricky area of law and a source of confusion for both employees and employers, so great care should be given in determining its applicability and ramifications. To complicate the FMLA even more, significant changes and amendments were made to the Act in 2008, which primarily provides further protection to those serving in the military and to those providing care for them.
To read about damages and evaluating how much your FMLA case might be worth click on the following link to a blog post that I wrote about FMLA damages.