The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin recently held that an employer’s misleading statements to an employee regarding the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can lead to liability even if the employee is not eligible for FMLA leave. Reif v. Assisted Living by Hillcrest LLC d/b/a Brillion West Haven. In Reif, plaintiff Angel Reif notified her employer’s HR coordinator on January 9, 2018 that she would need surgery and that she wanted to schedule it after she became FMLA eligible. The coordinator told Reif that Reif would be eligible for leave on January 25, 2018. Accordingly, Reif scheduled surgery for January 31, 2018, six days after her eligibility date. When Reif reported the date of the surgery to the coordinator, the coordinator told Reif that she should schedule surgery as soon as possible—before she was FMLA-eligible—and that the coordinator would “work” with Reif so that her FMLA leave would be approved. The coordinator assured Reif that Reif’s job would be waiting for her when she was ready to return to work. Based on the coordinator’s representations, Reif moved up the surgery date to a date that was eight days before her FMLA eligibility date and applied for FMLA leave.
Despite the coordinator’s promises, the coordinator sent a letter to Reif, dated two days after the surgery, stating that the company was denying Reif’s FMLA leave request because Reif did not meet FMLA eligibility requirements. Just eight days after her surgery, Reif informed her employer that she was able to return to work with some restrictions. Two weeks later, the employer informed Reif that it had filled her position.
Reif sued for interference with her FMLA rights. Her employer asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that Reif was not eligible for FMLA leave. The court refused to do so, explaining that “it would be fundamentally unfair to allow an employer to force an employee to begin a non-emergency medical leave less than two weeks before she would become eligible under the FMLA, assure her that she would receive leave and her job would be waiting for her when she returned, and then fire her for taking an unauthorized leave.” In essence, because Reif relied on her employer’s representations to her detriment, the employer would be precluded from arguing lack of eligibility.
Reif is a reminder to employers that statements promising benefits can bind the employers even if circumstances exist where an employee would otherwise not be entitled to receipt of the benefit. FMLA policies and procedures should be carefully constructed and scrupulously followed.