…In Fact, Employees Do Not Have To Even Apply – Beware
A recent Pennsylvania Federal Court Decision is a “must read” if you are an employer or have to deal with employees on the management side. In Raimondi v. Wyoming County, U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67653 (M.D. Pa. May 24, 2016), the court, in a cogently reasoned decision, instructs how to deal with requests for leave when evaluating whether such requests qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The employee simply requests time off and even if FMLA is not mentioned or a special “FMLA” form is not used, if the circumstances known to the employer indicate FMLA applies, it does.
The plaintiff, Debra Raimondi, was employed by Wyoming County as director of its 911 call center. In June 2014, she traveled to her parent’s home in another state to care for her mother after her father, who had recently had surgery, was placed in a nursing home. The County was told that her father was sick and her mother, who had the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, “might have broken her hand or something”. Raimondi requested leave “to get ready for her dad to come home from the hospital.” During her leave the County told her she had to resign or be terminated; she was terminated and, not surprisingly, brought suit.
While on leave Raimondi’s claim was clear: she needed FMLA leave to care for her parents who suffered from serious health conditions and the County fired her while she was on leave. The court treated Raimondi’s claim as one presenting for FMLA interference. The Employer’s position did not pass the “smell test”, i.e. common sense, fairness and reason did not seem to apply.
WARNING: DO NOT BURY YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND
The County contended that Raimondi was not entitled to FMLA leave because she did not specifically use the words “FMLA” nor did she request “FMLA” forms. This defense did not go over well with the court. The court admonished all of the defendants for burying their collective heads in the sand in response to Raimondi’s request for leave to care for her ailing parents. Citing the Third Circuit’s decision in Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, 798 F. 3d 149 (3d Cir. 2015), the Court explained that an employee need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA. An employee need only state a qualifying reason for the leave and fulfill the notice requirements under the act.
What did the County Defendants do wrong here? Just about everything. First, the defendants mistakenly believed that Raimondi had to say the magic words – “FMLA.” Next, after receipt of Raimondi’s request for leave, the defendants failed to ask Raimondi for clarification of her leave request or a medical certification. Finally, the defendants never provided Raimondi with proper FMLA leave application forms, the designation notice, rights and responsibilities notice or eligibility notice documents under the FMLA. The Defendant County seemed to treat this employee’s family’s serious medical situation as a game of “Gotcha”.
MEDICAL EMERGENCY NOT NECESSARY
The District Court explained that FMLA leave is not limited to “medical emergency” situations. Rather, where an employee requests leave to care for a family member, it is only required that the family member have a serious health condition. Raimondi’s mother suffered from multiple conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Her father suffered from ongoing heart issues and had recently had surgery for a broken bone in his leg. These ailments, of course, presented serious health conditions under the FMLA. The Court found that the County discharging her before her leave was over constituted a denial of the FMLA benefit of return to her position at the conclusion of her leave.
The Raimondi case makes clear that employers cannot merely sit on their hands and claim ignorance just because the buzz words, “Family and Medical Leave Act”, are not used when an employee requests leave. Rather, an employer should interact with an employee, as required by the FMLA, to determine whether the requested leave qualifies under the Act.
THE PHILADELPHIA LABOR GROUP AT OFFIT KURMAN
ABOUT NEIL A. MORRIS
Neil Morris is the Chair of the Labor & Employment practice group in the Philadelphia regional office. He has passionately represented employers for the last 30 years. He specializes in the areas of labor and employment, municipal labor law, employment discrimination, defamation and business litigation. He has also served as Labor Counsel for every size business and institution on a local, regional, and national scale. He has represented more than 35 Pennsylvania Townships and Boroughs and the County of Bucks. He is often brought in to handle “crisis” situations involving employees and/or management.
ABOUT GABRIEL CELII
Mr. Celii devotes his practice to representing businesses and municipal entities navigating labor and employment disputes ranging from wage and hour litigation and work place discrimination defense to labor negotiations and the resolution of grievances. During his representation of Philadelphia-area Townships and Counties, he has successfully defended claims brought against public officials and advised municipalities on the drafting of local ordinances, such as Police Pension DROP amendments.
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