EMPLOYER NOT LIABLE FOR INTERFERENCE WITH EMPLOYEE'S FMLA RIGHTS DESPITE VIOLATIONS OF FMLA NOTICE PROVISIONS
August 13, 2014
The facts of the case were relatively straightforward. Plaintiff Scott Bellone, a teacher, requested medical leave. Although the FMLA requires employers to send employees an FMLA eligibility notice within five days of learning that an employee's leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason, Bellone's employer, Southwick-Tolland Regional School District, failed to send any type of notice during this period. The employer did send the notice approximately 2 weeks late, but the notice did not contain all of the required information.
Bellone had his doctor fill out the FMLA paperwork he had received from his employer; however, the paperwork he provided did not contain enough specific information about his medical condition. After his employer informed Bellone that his medical information certifying his need for leave was insufficient, Bellone authorized his employer to communicate directly with his doctor. Once his employer received enough information to determine whether the leave was FMLA-qualifying, his employer was required by law to send Bellone a notice to this effect within five days. The employer missed this deadline as well, by approximately six weeks, but did eventually notify Bellone that his leave had been designated as FMLA-qualifying, and that he would be entitled to twelve weeks of FMLA leave, from March 4-June 4, 2010. Bellone did not return to work for the remainder of the 2009-2010 school year.
As the start of the 2010-2011 school year approached, the school district needed to know whether Bellone would be able to return to work, so on August 25, 2010, it sent him another letter. The letter said that, in order to continue to hold his job, Bellone had to respond with evidence of his fitness for duty within seven days. Bellone's psychologist responded on August 30, stating there were no psychological reasons he could not return to work for the academic year. The school district then placed Bellone on administrative leave for the first three weeks of the school year and scheduled him to return to work on September 22, 2010, in a slightly different position but with the same benefits and salary. Bellone did not report to work and was subsequently terminated for job abandonment.
Bellone sued, alleging that his employer interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to provide timely and adequate eligibility and designation notices. The federal district court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment because the school district's actions did not harm Bellone. Bellone was afforded his full allotment of FMLA leave, and he was not medically able to return until after his allotment expired. Therefore, Bellone was not entitled to reinstatement. The district court found that Bellone's inability to work, not his employer's untimely or inadequate notices, caused Bellone's harm.
Bellone appealed the district court's ruling. On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed. The Court concluded that the employer had clearly violated the FMLA by providing late eligibility and designation notices and for sending an eligibility notice which failed to contain all the required information. However, the Court found that there was no evidence that the late and inadequate notices caused Bellone any harm. The Court reasoned that Bellone had failed to provide any evidence that he would have done anything differently (such as modifying his treatment, requesting a workplace accommodation, or returning to work earlier) even if the School District had provided the notices on time or in the proper manner. Furthermore, the School District did submit uncontroverted evidence in the form of notes from Bellone's own doctor to demonstrate that he was unable to return to work before the end of the 2009-2010 school year. The Court also held that Bellone was not entitled to reinstatement because he was unable to return to work at the end of his period of FMLA leave. Bellone's FMLA leave ran from March 4-June 4, 2010, and he failed to demonstrate that he was able to return to work on June 5th.
The Bellone decision is a useful reminder for employers to provide timely and adequate FMLA notices to employees. Employers must provide an employee with a written notice of his or her eligibility for FMLA leave, together with information about the employee's rights and obligations under the FMLA, within five business days of the employer learning that the employee's medical leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason. Then, once the employer has obtained sufficient information from which it can determine whether the employee's leave qualifies for FMLA protection, the employer has only five business days to provide the employee with a notice that the leave has been designated as FMLA leave.