Human Resources News & Insights

FMLA policy blunder proves very costly for employer

What this employer’s FMLA policy didn’t say has it facing an expensive jury trial. 

Terry Tilley worked for the Kalamazoo County Road Commission in Michigan. He felt he was entitled to some FMLA leave after being hospitalized with chest pains.

While he was off the job, he was terminated.

Tilley then filed an FMLA interference lawsuit against the Road Commission.

The Road Commission then fought to get his suit thrown out on summary judgment. It’s main argument: Tilley wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave because he didn’t work at a location where his employer employed 50 or more people within a 75-mile radius (one of three criteria an employee must meet to be FMLA-eligible). And if Tilley wasn’t eligible for FMLA protections, he couldn’t sue for interference.

A huge policy no-no

That’s actually a very good argument under normal circumstances — one that would ordinarily get the employer off the hook.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. The Road Commission had overlooked one thing: Its FMLA policy didn’t mention anything about the 75-mile radius requirement. Oops!

The policy only outlined the first two criteria employees must meet to be FMLA-eligible.

Here’s the commission’s FMLA eligibility statement, word for word:

“Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.”

Because the commission’s policy neglected to mention the 75-mile radius criterion, the court said Tilley couldn’t be denied FMLA leave based upon that requirement.

It ruled, “a reasonable person in Tilley’s position could fairly have believed that he was protected by the FMLA.”

As a result, the court said the commission was in no position to argue that Tilley had acted unreasonably in concluding that he was protected by the FMLA.

It ruled Tilley’s case should go before a jury, which is likely to cost the commission a hefty sum in legal fees — and that’s even if it wins the case.

Check it twice

This case services as an important reminder to double-check your FMLA policies to make sure they carve out exactly who’s supposed to be eligible for FMLA leave — and all of the protections qualified workers will receive.

As the commission’s policy proves, brevity isn’t always your friend. Less specificity can lead to you having to provide more benefits than you’re legally required to.

Cite: Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission

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