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7th Circuit awards employee in FMLA retaliation case

California residents may be interested in a recent 7th Circuit decision that involves the Family and Medical Leave Act as well as work-at-home arrangements between employers and employees. The January 9 decision was a victory for a worker who was fired from her job after leaving work to care for a family member.

The worker had been allowed to work from home two days per week and use time under the FMLA to care for her son, who is autistic. After several months of this arrangement, the employer said that due to its own financial difficulties, the employee could no longer work from home. On a Friday she was told by a human resources representative that she must report to work in person the following Monday or be fired. The employee stated that she could not find care for her son on such short notice. The HR representative also told her, incorrectly, that FMLA only allowed her to leave work for doctor's appointments and therapy. In actual fact, FMLA allows leave from work to care for family members with serious health issues.

The employee did appear at work on the following Monday, but only to state that she had not been able to find care for her son. She then left to return home, and she was terminated from her job.

The lawsuit the employee filed alleged that she was fired in retaliation for exercising her rights under FMLA. The jury agreed, and the 7th Circuit upheld the decision when the employer appealed. The appeal wound up costing the employer because the court at that point raised the amount of attorney fees the employer was ordered to pay the claimant from 80 percent to 100 percent.

The human resources representative who incorrectly informed the employee in this case about what is covered under FMLA could have been held directly liable under the law. Employees being given incorrect information about their rights by a supervisor or other personnel is not an uncommon scenario. It could benefit both employers and employees to understand workers' rights under employment law.

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