Can Employers Become Contractually Bound to the FMLA?

Posted on by Michael Hourigan in Labor & Employment.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees who work for employers that have more than 50 employees within seventy-five miles of the employee’s worksite.  However, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has suggested that employers, even if not specifically covered by the FMLA, may bind themselves to the terms of the FMLA through certain oral and written statements made to their employees.

In Reaux v. Infohealth Management Corp., 2009 WL 635468 (N.D.Ill.), there was no dispute that the employer employed fewer than 50 employees within seventy-five miles of the employee’s worksite.  However, the employee contended that the employer was barred from arguing that it was not covered by the FMLA because of certain language in the employer’s handbook and certain statements that it had made to the employee.

The employer’s handbook contained policy language providing for a leave of absence without pay to eligible employees in compliance with the FMLA.  The handbook provided that employees who had actively worked for the employer for at least 12 months as of the first day of FMLA Leave and who had worked at least 1,250 hours during the immediately preceding twelve-month period were entitled to FMLA Leave.  The handbook specifically provided that employees were entitled to FMLA Leave for the birth of the employee’s child.

In Reaux, the employee gave birth to her child on August 1, 2006 and was scheduled to return to work on September 11, 2006.  However, the employee was terminated on September 7, 2006.  The employee alleged that the employer had violated the FMLA by terminating her during the course of her FMLA Leave.

The employer moved to dismiss the employee’s FMLA claim, arguing that it was not covered by the FMLA’s specific terms.  The Court, however, denied the employer’s Motion, accepting the employee’s argument that the employer was barred from denying that it was subject to the FMLA.  The Court noted that the employer’s handbook provided for 12-week maternity leave under the FMLA, and that the employee’s direct supervisor told the employee that she would be entitled to leave is she filled out the FMLA paperwork.

Although Reaux contained a fairly unique set of facts, the case is instructive in warning employers that they must be cautious in drafting handbook language and in communicating with employees.  In the absence of carefully written handbook language, an employer may find itself subject to federal employment laws that do not specifically apply to it.  We suggest that all employers carefully scrutinize their handbooks to ensure that they are not placed in the same position as the employer in Reaux.