EMPLOYER ESCAPES FMLA LIABILITY BUT STILL LESSONS TO BE LEARNED

By: Carol G. Schley, Clark Hill PLC

            A recent Michigan Court of Appeals case is a reminder to employers that the manner in which they handle an employee’s request for leave could result in unintended consequences, such as extending the statute of limitations for claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

            In Artis v. Department of Corrections, 2017 WL 4015760 (2017), the employee, Michele Artis, worked at a Michigan correctional facility. She began experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, and was hospitalized for mental exhaustion and depression on June 28, 2012.  She contacted her supervisor around that date, and claimed she told him she was in the hospital and could not return to work until she received approval from her physician.  Artis did not inform her supervisor how long she would be out of work or in the hospital.  Artis also did not call in to her employer after this initial call.  She also admitted at her deposition that she did not tell her supervisor anything that would lead him to believe she would be absent for more than one day.

            On June 29, 2012, the employer’s human resources officer, unaware of Artis’ call to her supervisor or that Artis was in the hospital, sent Artis a letter stating that she was absent from work without authorization, had failed to report her absences each day in compliance with the employer’s call-in policy, and needed to return to work by July 1, 2012 or else be terminated.  As she failed to return to work by that date, her employment was terminated effective July 1.  The employer later received a fax from the hospital dated July 9, 2012 requesting FMLA leave for Artis and stating she was hospitalized from July 4 to July 9, 2012.

            Artis filed a lawsuit against her employer on July 1, 2015, claiming that it violated its obligation to provide FMLA leave to her, and the fact that she had taken FMLA leave in the past and had informed her supervisor that she was hospitalized triggered a duty for the employer to investigate her claim and realize she was requesting FMLA leave.  She further argued that her claim was not barred by the 2 year statute of limitations because the employer’s violation of the FMLA was “willful,” thus extending the limitations period to 3 years.

            The court acknowledged that FMLA’s statute of limitations is extended to 3 years when an employer’s violation of the act is “willful.”  However, the court found that the circumstances did not rise to the level of willfulness and, therefore, Artis’ FMLA claim was time barred, as she filed her lawsuit after the 2 year statute of limitations had expired.  The court stated that willfulness under the FMLA required more than a showing of “mere negligence,” and instead required a showing that the “employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited” by the FMLA.  The court noted Artis’ admission that she did not inform her employer that she would be out for more than one day as one of the factors negating a finding of willfulness.  Further, the fact that she had previously taken FMLA leave “was insufficient to reasonably put defendants on notice or on constructive notice that her unexplained absence in 2012 was related to FMLA.”

            The employer was able to escape liability in this case only due to Artis filing her lawsuit after the 2 year statute of limitations had run, and this court’s finding that she failed to show the employer acted “willfully.”  However, had this issue not been decided in the employer’s favor, it is possible that the court would have held that there was sufficient evidence for Artis to proceed to trial on her FMLA claim.

            The FMLA puts the burden on the employer to make further inquiry when it is unclear whether an employee is seeking FMLA leave.  In this case, the fact that Artis reported she was in the hospital is a circumstance that should have triggered the employer to make further inquiry.   In addition, it would have been wise for the human resources officer to speak to the supervisor, and possibly follow up with Artis as well, prior to issuing the letter stating Artis would be terminated.  This case is also a reminder to employers to act reasonably and thoroughly when faced with issues that may implicate the FMLA, in order to avoid a finding of “willfulness” that would extend the time period in which the employee can sue.

            This case is also unique in that it was decided by a Michigan state court, as most FMLA claims are filed in federal district court.  Had this case been in federal court, the outcome may have been different, as the federal courts for our jurisdiction tend to be more pro-employee with respect to FMLA issues than our state appellate courts.

            Where the FMLA may be at play, it is best for an employer to act with caution and ensure that the decision maker has all of relevant facts before making a substantive employment decision such as termination.  Further, it is helpful to have legal counsel review any proposed action against an employee who may be protected by the FMLA.

Carol G. Schley is a member of the Detroit SHRM Legal Affairs Committee and an attorney at the law firm Clark Hill PLC.  She can be reached at cschley@clarkhill.com or (248)530-6338.

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