It’s more important than ever to teach supervisors how to listen for leave requests that could fall under the umbrella of a “serious” condition qualifying for relief. Otherwise, don’t expect to plead ignorance if they make a mistake.
Reason: Courts are increasingly willing to zap employers with double damages under FMLA’s “liquidated-damages” rule. You can face that fate unless you prove that you acted in good faith and had reasonable grounds to believe your actions weren’t an FMLA violation.
Recent example: When Ralph Cooper, who suffered from depression, went on medical leave, his boss gave him a medical certification form and told him the HR director wanted it back in six days. When Cooper didn’t hit that deadline, the organization fired him.
Cooper sued and won. The FMLA says employees must be given at least 15 days to return certification forms. The jury awarded Cooper $248,828 in back pay and $58,000 in lost pension contributions.
The judge then doubled the award. Reason: When employers deny employees an FMLA right by acting in bad faith, they can be forced to pay twice. On appeal, the court upheld the award because neither the supervisor nor the HR director was knowledgeable about the FMLA. (Cooper v. Fulton County, No. 05-12318, 11th Cir., 2006)
Final tip: Be aware that managers and supervisors can be held personally liable for bad-faith FMLA decisions. That means some of the jury award could come out of their own pockets.