Most employers know that qualified employees are entitled under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take unpaid leave from work to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition. What happens when the employee requests FMLA leave to care for a sick grandparent? A new Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision cautions employers to carefully review this request before rejecting it as outside the scope of the FMLA.
In Coutard v. Mun. Credit Union, the employer denied the plaintiff’s request for FMLA leave to care for his grandfather. During the application process, the employee did not disclose that his grandfather had raised him, and the company’s human resources department never asked about their relationship before denying the leave request. He sued, claiming interference with his FMLA rights.
The Second Circuit agreed, reversing and remanding the earlier dismissal of the claim. The court first pointed to Department of Labor rules issued under the FMLA (29 C.F.R. §825.102) that extend caregiver leave rights to persons who stood “in loco parentis” for the employee, meaning those persons who essentially acted as their parent during childhood based on the birth parent’s death or absence. In addition to grandparents, this can include step-parents, collateral relatives, or even persons not related by blood or marriage.
The defendant argued that even if the plaintiff’s grandfather stood in loco parentis, the employee had the obligation to provide this information when making the FMLA leave request. The Second Circuit disagreed, finding no such obligation under the FMLA. The employer must inquire about the relationship, and should provide the employee with information indicating who qualifies as a parent under the Act. DOL’s FMLA form used to advise employees of their rights contains this language. Based on this decision, human resource professionals should ask employees for more information whenever there is doubt over their entitlement to leave.