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Denial of FMLA Benefits is Not Required to Prove FMLA Interference

Takeaway: Because managers are typically the first point of contact when an employee has an FMLA question, it is critical to train them on the key elements of the FMLA and how to properly handle FMLA leave requests. Training should include how to recognize when an employee’s request may trigger FMLA obligations and what the manager should and should not say or do to avoid creating liability for interfering with FMLA rights.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not require an actual denial of benefits for a violation of the FMLA to have occurred, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held, ruling that a sheriff’s department had interfered with an employee’s right to use FMLA leave he was entitled to take.

The employee had worked as a correctional officer for the sheriff’s department for 27 years. During that time, he had developed several serious health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and periodically had taken FMLA leave.

In September 2016, the employee had used 304 hours out of the 480 hours of FMLA leave he was eligible for when he called the department’s FMLA manager to discuss using his remaining FMLA leave as well as his sick and other leave benefits to enroll in an eight-week PTSD treatment program recommended by his doctor. According to the employee, the manager responded by telling him that he had “taken serious amounts of FMLA” and saying, “Don’t take any more FMLA leave. If you do so, you will be disciplined.”

After hearing this, the employee decided to retire from the sheriff’s office on Sept. 20, 2016. Two months later, he filed a lawsuit alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the FMLA.

The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of the sheriff’s department on all claims. The employee appealed only the FMLA claims, arguing that the employer had interfered with his FMLA rights by discouraging him from using FMLA leave and by constructively discharging him in retaliation for requesting additional FMLA leave.

In reviewing the case, the appeals court noted that the district court had found that the plaintiff’s retaliation claim failed because he did not offer evidence of an adverse employment action and his interference claim failed because he did not show an actual denial of FMLA benefits. The 7th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision as to the retaliation claim but found the district court had not applied the correct interpretation of the FMLA with regard to interference.

The FMLA prohibits covered employers from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of or the attempt to exercise FMLA rights. It also prohibits them from discriminating or retaliating against employees for exercising FMLA rights. The 7th Circuit explained that for the act to protect “the exercise of or the attempt to exercise” FMLA rights, it must be read so that an interference or restraint without actual denial is still a violation. “Reading the act to permit employers to interfere with or restrain the use of FMLA rights as long as no unlawful denial occurs would conflict with and undermine the rights granted,” the appeals court said.

The court provided examples of prohibited interference or restraint, such as:

  • Implementing a burdensome FMLA process.
  • Failing to provide information to employees about their FMLA rights.
  • Refusing to grant or accept proper FMLA leave requests.
  • Other actions that would discourage employees from exercising their FMLA rights.

FMLA rights would be significantly diminished if employers were permitted to actively discourage employees from taking steps to access FMLA benefits, the court held. “Threatening to discipline an employee for seeking or using FMLA leave to which he is entitled clearly qualifies as interference with FMLA rights,” the court found.

The 7th Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the sheriff’s office on the employee’s FMLA interference claim and sent it back to the district court for further proceedings. The appeals court said, “We hope this opinion will help clarify that an employer can violate the FMLA by discouraging an employee from exercising rights under the FMLA without actually denying an FMLA leave request.”

Ziccarelli v. Dart, 7th Cir., No. 19-3435 (June 1, 2022).

Robert S. Teachout, SHRM-SCP, works in the Washington, D.C., area and is a legal editor for XpertHR, a service helping HR build successful and purposeful workplaces.

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