You ask your supervisor if you can take leave under theFamily and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and he or she grants you permission. Only after taking your leave, your employer tells you that you're ineligible for FMLA, and as a result, punishes you for being away from work.
That was the case this September with Dawkins v. Fulton County Government. In this scenario, an employee requested FMLA to help her father take care of a terminally ill uncle. She asked her supervisor through email for leave, who responded with the word, “Approved.” Four days after her email and soon after her leave began, her employer rescinded her recent promotion. In turn, Dawkins sued her employer for FMLA retaliation.
According to federal law, a terminally ill uncle does not fit FMLA guidelines, so in essence, Dawkins was not qualified for leave. But since her supervisor gave the ok, who is at fault?
Equitable Estoppel in the Case of FMLA
Dawkins and her attorneys believed her case was protected under the equitable estoppel doctrine. Equitable estoppel is a rule of evidence that bars the defendant from denying the truth of a fact that has already been settled. In Dawkins' case, she believed since her employer approved her request, her company was equitably estopped from denying her FMLA.
Yet, the court found that Dawkins failed to establish that she reasonably relied on her manager's email for approval. In the past, Dawkins had taken FMLA for an unrelated issue and understood from past experience that her company required paperwork and medical documentation before granting leave. In addition, the court believed Dawkins was already preparing to take leave as she requested her paperwork be sent to her uncle's house in Florida although she lived in Georgia.
The Eleventh Circuit court overseeing the case agreed with the lower court's decision in favor of the employer. The court established the demotion was not in retaliation for Dawkins' FMLA leave as she failed to follow proper protocol and was ineligible for leave anyway, regardless of the email response from her manager. Although the manager did not clarify if “Approved” meant approved for leave or approved to move ahead and request FMLA leave from the HR department, the court felt Dawkins did not have a case, regardless of how she translated the email.
The Dawkins v. Fulton County Government case reaffirms that employers and employees alike must have a clear understanding of FMLA eligibility. Employers must review the intricacies of the law, train their managers on their policies, and establish a select group of HR managers who can approve or deny FMLA requests. In addition, they should make these policies clear to all employees who work for them.
Just as important, employees should understand the eligibility requirements for FMLA and follow company procedures when applying for leave, which in many instances requires completing proper paperwork and securing certain information from a medical professional. If you are eligible for FMLA and your employer retaliates or prevents you from taking leave, you may have a case for a violation of the FMLA if you follow all the proper steps.