FMLA violations: Expect double damages to be new normal, ruling says


As if you needed another reason to double-check your managers’ Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) training. Still, a recent court ruling just gave employers a pretty big one. 
In a nutshell, the court said if a company winds up guilty of an FMLA violation in court, it’ll most likely have to fork over double damages.
That’s the takeaway from Crain v. Schlumberger Technology, an FMLA ruling that essentially said if an employer is found guilty of violating the FMLA, it will have to pay the jury verdict as well as an additional amount equal to that figure in liquidated damages — aka, “double damages.”

Bad timing

In the case, an employee who’d been selected for a reduction-in-force (RIF) let the company know he needed to have surgery and would miss some work time (Note: The decision to include him in the RIF was made prior to him even knowing he needed surgery). Although he didn’t specifically mention the FMLA, he did ask about the availability of short-term disability.
The company had planned to terminate the employee in March, but expedited his termination in February as a result of the surgery disclosure.
That prompted the employee to file an FMLA interference claim.

The ruling

A jury ruled that the employer had, in fact, interfered with the employee’s FMLA rights and awarded him liquidated damages.
Under the FMLA, liquidated damages will be assessed unless the employer can show it tried “in good faith” to abide by the law.
The company tried to argue that the court shouldn’t double the jury’s original verdict award of $77,000 with the liquidated damages add-on. But the court affirmed the jury’s verdict and liquidated damages award.
It said in all but the rarest of cases, if an employer violates the FMLA, it’s likely to pay liquidated damages. That’s because, according to the ruling, employers bear a “substantial burden” to prove good faith and overcome the “presumption of entitlement to liquidated damages.”
To prove good faith, an employer must show it:

  • acted with a subjective intent to comply with the FMLA, and
  • acted objectively reasonable in its application of the FMLA.

The court said that even though the employer in this case had an FMLA policy in its handbook and reviewed the list of employees selected for the RIF to see if any had specifically requested FMLA, the employee here had mentioned short-term disability. Therefore, the company’s failure to consider the potential application of FMLA was not reasonable.
Result: double damages.
Info: A version of this story was published previously on our sister website, HR Benefits Alert.