The DOL’s Made Some Changes to the FMLA; Is Your Policy in Compliance?

By: Amy Lauricella

Effective March 8, 2013, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) began enforcing a new Final Rule for interpreting the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”).  The DOL’s new Final Rule (published February 6, 2013) makes effective expanded military caregiver and qualifying exigency leave rights created by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010.   The Final Rule also incorporates an hours of service eligibility requirement created by the Airline Flight Crew Technical Corrections Act of 2009, a federal law which modified FMLA eligibility requirements for airline flight attendants and flight crew members, who largely had been excluded from protected leave due to their unconventional work schedules,

The bulk of the DOL’s Final Rule clarifies military qualifying exigency and service member caregiver leave.  Significant changes to the FMLA regulations resulting from the Final Rule include the following:

Extension of Military Caregiver Rights to Veterans:  The Final Rule implements statutory amendments to the FMLA that extend military caregiver rights to family members of veterans with serious injuries or illnesses.  Specifically, the regulations define a covered veteran as a member of the Armed Forces who has been discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable within five years prior to the date the employee’s leave.  The Final Rule adopts a flexible definition of a serious “injury or illness” for purposes of veteran military caregiver leave coverage.  Additionally, the Final Rule expands the definition of serious injury or illness for current service members to include preexisting conditions aggravated by service in the line of active duty.

Expansion of Qualifying Exigency Leave:  The DOL’s Final Rule extends qualifying exigency leave to eligible employees who are family members of military personnel of the Regular Armed Forces that are deployed to a foreign country.   The DOL Final Rule also expands qualifying exigency leave to add a “parental care” category.  Under this new category, an eligible employee may take qualifying exigency leave to care for a service member’s parent, who is incapable of self-care, in order for the eligible employee to:

  1. arrange for alternative care;
  2. provide care on an urgent, immediate need basis (but not on a routine, regular or everyday basis);
  3. admit or transfer the parent to a care facility; or
  4. attend meetings with staff at a care facility (but not for routine or regular meetings).

The need to provide parental care must arise directly out of the military member’s active duty status.  Additionally, under the DOL’s new regulations, eligible employees now may take up to fifteen (15) days, instead of five (5), for qualifying exigency leave related to their rest and recuperation.

Clarification of Leave Certification Process:  Prior FMLA regulations allowed certification of a service member’s serious injury or illness to be obtained only from representatives of the Departments of Defense or Veterans Affairs.  Other health care providers were excluded from certifying a service member’s serious injury or illness.  Under new FMLA regulations, any health care provider, even those unaffiliated with the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs or TRICARE, may provide required certification for an eligible employee to take military caregiver leave.

New FMLA Poster and Certification Forms:  The Final Rule approves a revised FMLA Employer Rights and Responsibilities poster and new certification forms for FMLA leave, including a new form for military caregiver leave to care for veterans.  The FMLA poster and certification forms, which are available on the DOL’s website, have been revised and updated to incorporate the new language of the FMLA regulations.

In light of these significant changes to FMLA regulations, employers need to revise their current FMLA policies and replace outdated posters and certification forms to bring them into compliance.  Employers can also expect an uptick in the number of employees requesting military–related FMLA leave, as the DOL’s new regulations have expanded existing leave rights to cover a greater number of eligible employees.

Third Circuit Addresses The Notice An Employee Must Give Of Unforeseeable FMLA Leave

By: William R. Horwitz

On August 3, 2012, in Lichtenstein v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed the issue of how much information an employee must provide when notifying an employer of unforeseeable leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (“FMLA”).  By way of background, the FMLA generally entitles eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period to care for themselves or a family member with a “serious health condition,” such as a condition requiring inpatient hospital care or continuing medical treatment.  An employee only qualifies for FMLA leave if he or she provides sufficient information to permit the employer to determine whether the FMLA applies.  For unforeseeable leave, the regulations require an employee to provide this notice “as soon as practicable.”

In this case, plaintiff Jamie Lichtenstein, a psychiatric technician, telephoned her employer shortly before her shift was scheduled to begin and explained that she “was currently in the emergency room [because her] mother had been brought into the hospital via ambulance, and [Lichtenstein] would be unable to work that day.”  A few days later, Lichtenstein provided further information about her mother’s condition and requested a leave of absence but, by that time, the employer had already decided to terminate Lichtenstein’s employment for unrelated conduct pre-dating the mother’s emergency room visit.

In a lawsuit against her employer, Lichtenstein asserted FMLA interference and retaliation claims, alleging that her absence had constituted protected leave and that her employer had impermissibly considered the absence in deciding to terminate her employment.  The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, dismissing Lichtenstein’s FMLA claims.  Among other things, the district court concluded that Lichtenstein’s notice was inadequate to trigger the FMLA’s protections, because it did not include enough information for the employer to conclude that her mother “necessarily” had a serious health condition.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed, emphasizing that, “when the leave is unforeseeable, the employee’s obligation is to provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request” (internal quotation marks omitted and emphasis in original).

The Third Circuit explained that, by notifying the employer that her mother had been taken to the emergency room by ambulance, Lichtenstein did not provide enough information for the employer to conclude that her mother necessarily had a “serious health condition,” but did provide enough information for the employer to reasonably determine that her mother may have a “serious health condition” and the FMLA may, therefore, apply.  According to the Court, once the employee’s initial notice “reasonably apprises the employer that FMLA may apply, it is the employer’s burden to request additional information if necessary.”

The Lichtenstein case provides helpful guidance for employers.  With regard to the FMLA, when receiving information from an employee suggesting that his or her absence may trigger the FMLA, the employer should follow up with the employee and request additional information.  This case also acts as a reminder that, when discharging employees, an employer should be sure to document its legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons in order to minimize the risk that an unexpected development, such as unforeseeable leave, provides a basis for employees to allege that the decision was unlawful.

New Jersey District Court Allows Plaintiff to Proceed to Trial on Claim of Unlawful Discharge, Dismisses Claims of Handicap and Discrimination

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey District Court in St. Cyr v. Brandywine Senior Living LLC, recently granted summary judgment to the employer dismissing the plaintiff’s causes of action for handicap and race discrimination, but allowed the plaintiff to go to trial on her claim that she was unlawfully discharged in violation of the FMLA in retaliation for asking for a medical leave of absence because she was fired only two days before the leave of absence was to begin.  In granting summary judgment on the claim of handicap discrimination, the court determined that the plaintiff, who suffered from arthritis, was not “handicapped” under the NJLAD because the condition, which  was alleviated with medication, did not interfere with her ability to perform her job, and because she never asked for an accommodation for the condition.  The court rejected her claim of race discrimination based on her admission that the only evidence implicating racial animus was the fact that she was fired for watching the BET Network on television during working hours.  The court noted that the plaintiff, who had previously been placed on probation for poor performance and was on final warning, was replaced by an African American employee and had failed to show the legitimate reason given for her discharge was pretextual.  Despite that finding, however, and despite the fact that the employer had granted the plaintiff’s request for a medical leave of absence, the court denied summary judgment on the claim of retaliatory discharge under the FMLA based only on the determination that the timing of the discharge – only two days before her FMLA leave was to begin – was “unusually suggestive” of retaliatory motivation.  The court did not explain how the timing could be suspect if that was when the plaintiff was found watching television instead of doing her job, and if there was no evidence that the proffered reason was pretextual.