The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Ragsdale decision rejected Department of Labor regulations stating that failure to provide employees with notice of leave rights was a per se violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Instead, the Court concluded that lack of notice only violates the FMLA when the employee can demonstrate that he was prejudiced in terms of exercise of leave rights. The common example of this scenario involves a situation where an employee could schedule medical treatment to make sure that the absences fell within her leave entitlement.
Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) explained another scenario where failure to provide notice of leave rights can form the basis of a FMLA interference claim. In Vannoy v. Fed. Reserve Bank of Richmond, the plaintiff suffered from chronic depression. Instead of adhering to his doctor’s recommended course of treatment, the plaintiff repeatedly returned to work over alleged fear that his continuing absences would result in his termination. He claimed that he was not provided with notice of his right to reinstatement from FMLA leave, and was eventually terminated after a series of workplace problems he attributed to his unresolved medical condition. The plaintiff filed suit, claiming that the employer interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to inform him of his right to reinstatement from leave.
The district court dismissed the claim on summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff had not demonstrated Ragsdale prejudice. The Fourth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the claim for jury trial. The court first determined that the plaintiff had raised a factual issue of whether or not he had received notice of his FMLA rights and responsibilities. Second, the Fourth Circuit found that the plaintiff might have been prejudiced by his lack of understanding that taking time to complete medical treatment would not result in his termination from employment.
FMLA regulations require that employers provide employees requesting leave with two notices: FMLA rights and responsibilities, and FMLA designation. The rules contain short windows for sending this information after learning of the need for leave. Many employers ignore or miss these deadlines due to the administrative burden of sending the notices on a timely basis. However, as demonstrated by this decision, failure to provide these notices can result in an expensive FMLA interference with rights claim.