Denying FMLA leave could make you liable for lost wages

If an employer denies legitimate FMLA leave and that denial, in turn, causes an employee to miss work because he becomes depressed or stressed, the employer may have to pay lost wages for those missed days. That’s what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a unique case that could have far-reaching effects.

Recent case: Frank Farrell suffers from diabetes, eczema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. As a result, he regularly missed work. Farrell was eligible for FMLA leave and requested time off. His employer denied some of the request.

As a result, Farrell said he began suffering psychological problems—adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression. He said those conditions caused him to miss still more work.

Farrell sued and a jury awarded him $1,110 in lost wages for the “days of work that he missed because of stress or other mental problems resulting from the wrongful denial of FMLA leave.”

His employer appealed, admitting that it had wrongly denied Farrell FMLA leave and that the denial caused mental distress. It denied, however, that the FMLA authorizes compensation for mental distress.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury award. It said that employees who miss work because their employers denied them legitimate FMLA leave are entitled to those lost wages. (Farrell v. Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District, No. 06-35484, 9th Cir., 2008)

Final note: It’s too early to tell whether this decision will open the litigation floodgates. It’s easy to imagine, though, how attorneys might manipulate the ruling. What if a mother who has been wrongly denied leave to take her child to the doctor for a serious health condition says she has been so traumatized she can’t work for a month? Will she sue for those lost wages? The possibilities are numerous. We’ll have to wait and see.