Last month, EmployNews reported a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirming dismissal of a Family and Medical Leave Act interference claim from an employee who was placed on FMLA leave despite the fact that the worksite was too small to fall within the Act’s jurisdiction. Last week in a split decision, the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, applying similar reasoning to an FMLA claim brought by an employee who had not worked long enough to qualify for FMLA leave.
In Nagle v. Acton-Boxborough Reg’l Sch. Dist., the employer orally told a part-time worker that she could use FMLA leave to care for her sick husband. After being fired, she sued, alleging that the termination was motivated by her use of FMLA leave. Unlike the Sixth Circuit case, the defendant in this matter was a public employer. The First Circuit stated that plaintiffs must meet a higher burden when attempting to apply equitable estoppel to a claim brought against a government entity. This avoids unreasonable drains on public resources.
The dissenting judge stated that the overall intent of the FMLA to provide job-protected leave to individuals in need overcame the concerns over applying estoppel to a public entity. The First Circuit did not indicate how its reasoning would apply to a private employer. Given this restricted opinion and the strong dissent, plaintiffs in other cases could argue that this decision actually supports claims of equitable estoppel in appropriate circumstances. Taking the same lesson from the Sixth Circuit decision, employers should never promise employees use of FMLA leave until they have confirmed that individual employee’s eligibility for such leave.