FMLA: Your Rights May Have Been Expanded by the 6th Circuit
Just a few days back, the 6th Circuit Appeals Court made a ruling in the case of Marshall v. Rawling Co. which has the potential to substantially expand your rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). They did this by expanding the situations in which a company can be liable for taking adverse action against you after you assert your FMLA rights.
The 6th Circuit did this by accepting cat’s paw liability in FMLA claims. Cat’s paw liability refers to a situation where one party uses another to accomplish their purpose. This has the potential to give you a case against an employer for FMLA violations where one previously didn’t exist. I’ve discussed the FMLA, and how to protect your rights under it, in a previous article. So, with that in mind, we’ll focus here on what the FMLA is and how this ruling changes your rights under this act.
What is the FMLA?
The FMLA requires employers to offer their employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year to take care of a family member. However, like all things in law, it’s not quite so simple as this. The FMLA doesn’t apply to every employer, every employee, or even every illness. In fact, it only applies to employers with more than 50 employees at a single location. If it applies, then the employer must extend the protections of the FMLA to all their workers who are employed within 75 miles of the place they have 50 or more workers.
Even if an employer has enough employees to be held to the requirements of the FMLA, an employee has to fulfill certain conditions before the employer must allow them FMLA leave. Only employees who have worked for at least a year and at least about 25 hours per week for the last year qualify for the leave. What’s more, employees in the top 10% of pay within the 75-mile radius the employer covers are exempted from required coverage under the FMLA. There are also a few other exceptions to the Act such as elected officials.
As you might expect from a statute, the term serious illness is not left up to common sense interpretation. Instead, it is specifically defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” This means that you can’t get leave for check-ups and other routine medical care or for illnesses that come and go quickly like a common chest cold.
Where an employer takes action against an employee because they exercise their rights under the FMLA that can give rise to a retaliation claim against the employer. The Act also allows for employees to sue an employer for interfering with any of their rights under the FMLA in a type of lawsuit aptly named an interference suit.
The Facts of the Marshall Case
Gloria Marshall, an employee of Rawling, suffers from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But to find the time to receive treatment for these mental-health problems, Ms. Marshall took time off from work using FMLA leave. When Ms. Marshall returned, she had a backlog of work due to her unexpected leave leaving her with unfinished projects when she left. These combined with the new work assigned to her to leave her overwhelmed. She requested help with this work and, while Rawling says she received that help, she says they refused. Other employees in similar positions also testified that basically every employee had a backlog to some extent due to the amount of work assigned to each employee. While Ms. Marshall eventually cleared this backlog, the Vice President of the company-Jeff Bradshaw-made it clear in emails that he was worried about another backlog arising.
Ms. Marshall was subsequently demoted after Mr. Bradshaw recommended a demotion to her division head Laura Plumley. This demotion was apparently unrelated to the FMLA leave. Ms. Marshall continued to take occasional FMLA leave, but apparently excelled in her new position. Despite this, Bradshaw apparently severely criticized her performance and singled her out at work in embarrassing ways. At a meeting, Bradshaw made it clear he was disappointed in how often she had taken FMLA leave. Ms. Marshall eventually reported Mr. Bradshaw’s treatment of her, although she delayed out of fear of being fired. The allegations were reported to the company’s owner George Rawlings, who decided that she was making false reports to cover poor performance and fired her. Ms. Marshall sued, saying that her firing was retaliation for her FMLA leave.
What Does the Marshall Ruling Mean For Your Rights?
This is where the cat’s paw theory of liability comes into play, and where the 6th Circuit Appeals Court’s decision comes into play. For instance, there have been cases where a company is liable for discriminatory firing where a biased subordinate uses an official decision maker as a sort of a dupe in enacting their own scheme of by asserting their own influence on that decision maker.
The idea behind cat’s paw liability is that the organizational chart of a company doesn’t necessarily reflect the true decision making process. As in the example above, a decision maker will often rely on the recommendations of others lower on the totem pole or unrelated to the decision-as Ms. Plumley did with Jeff Bradshaw’s recommendation when she demoted Ms. Marshall. Basically, this decision means that if somebody who doesn’t make the final decision as to your employment status mistreats you based on your FMLA rights you may still have a lawsuit despite the fact that they aren’t the ones taking adverse employment action against you.
The 6th Circuit Appeals Court is not the law over the entirety of the U.S. However, the decision has the potential to very persuasive in other Circuits and is the law in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The case is even more persuasive as many other Circuits have consistently applied cat’s paw liability in other employment contexts such as Title VII discrimination cases. The exact impact of the case is yet to be seen. However, there is no question that your FMLA rights just got stronger.