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Check eligibility before sending FMLA letter

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

A federal trial court has issued an important FMLA decision that gives employees who aren’t otherwise eligible for FMLA leave a chance to sue—and win.

The court ruled that FMLA-ineligible employees can sue if an employer erroneously told them they were eligible for leave and they relied on that information to their detriment.

Recent case: Cathi Wilson went to work as a legal secretary at the Harrisburg office of a Philadelphia law firm. After four years on the job, she was told she acted unprofessionally on one occasion. That earned her a warning and placement on a performance improvement plan.

The day after she got the warning, Wilson contacted the office manager and requested FMLA leave for an undisclosed medical condition. A few days later, the firm sent Wilson’s doctors a form requesting certification that she suffered a serious health condition. He completed the form, certifying that Wilson would be out from June 10 to July 1. That prompted the firm to send Wilson a letter informing her that the absence was covered by the FMLA and ex­­plaining she had up to 12 weeks of protected leave coming.

But before Wilson had a chance to return, she was terminated. The firm didn’t supply a reason.

She sued, alleging interference with the FMLA. That’s when the firm realized not enough people worked at the Harrisburg office for the FMLA to apply there.

Wilson argued that she had relied to her detriment on the FMLA approval letter and wanted a chance to show she could have rescheduled her treatment if she had known she wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave.

The court said her case should go forward, on the theory that Wilson detrimentally relied on the law firm’s FMLA approval letter. (Wilson v. Rawle & Henderson, No. 11-4636, ED PA, 2011)

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