Equitable estoppel can apply to the FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted to provide employees the ability to take a leave of absence for medical or family issues without fear of losing employment. The act as written applies only to companies with over 50 employees. However, one court has determined it can apply to smaller companies, depending on how the company communicates with its employees. Smaller firms, including those in Los Angeles, should take notice of the court’s reasoning.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case revolved around a discharged employee who was suffering a medical condition and missed work. The employee met two criteria for falling under the FMLA. First, he was employed with the company for more than 12 months. Second, he had worked more than 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months.

The company did not have more than 50 employees located within a 75 mile radius. This is the third factor for eligibility under FMLA. However, this provision was not mentioned to the employee as a requirement to be eligible. Failure to advise the employee of that requirement created an issue for allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

In its reasoning, the court used an old contract law doctrine called “equitable estoppel” to resolve the issue. If a person relies on a statement of one party, or the silence of one party on a particular fact, a court of equity may at times prevent the party from asserting a defense that is inconsistent with the statement. In the case, the court found the failure of the company to state that FMLA didn’t apply to them was sufficient for a reasonable employee to believe that it was, in fact, a covered employer.

In a dispute with an employer, sometimes the employment contract or handbook is not all of the pertinent evidence. Statements an employer may give, failure to disclose certain facts or promises made can at times be used in a successful suit for wrongful discharge. This could be important to an attorney representing an employee in an FMLA case.

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