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Employee’s Failure to Rely on Mistaken Assurance of Eligibility Bars FMLA Claim

The United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decisions govern the federal courts in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan, recently rendered an employer-friendly decision in a case involving a mistaken grant of FMLA leave to a FMLA-ineligible employee. The Sixth Circuit held that, despite the employer’s having assured the ineligible employee that he was eligible for FMLA leave, it was not unlawful to refuse to reinstate him upon his return from leave because he had not shown that he detrimentally relied on the mistaken representation.

Daniel Dobrowski, who was epileptic, was employed as an engineer by Jay Dee Contractors. In July 2004, he decided to undergo elective surgery in an effort to treat his epilepsy and scheduled the surgery to take place on October 15. He filled out FMLA paperwork, which was approved. Upon Dobrowski’s return to work in November, he was informed by the company president that he was being terminated because his work was winding down and his services were no longer needed. When Dobrowski sued under the FMLA, Jay Dee defended on the basis that it employed fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of Dobrowski’s work site, making him ineligible for FMLA leave. Acknowledging that it had previously informed Dobrowski that he was FMLA-eligible, it asserted that this was simply a mistake. Dobrowski argued that the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” prevented Jay Dee from denying his eligibility after its previous representation to the contrary.

Stating that Jay Dee’s actions amounted to a “definite misrepresentation” of Dobrowski’s eligibility, the Sixth Circuit held that this was not alone sufficient for a successful claim of equitable estoppel. Under applicable law, Dobrowski had to be able to show that he relied to his detriment on Jay Dee’s misrepresentation – that is, that he somehow changed his position in reliance on the belief that the leave would be FMLA-protected. But, according to the Sixth Circuit, Dobrowski offered no evidence of detrimental reliance: he offered no evidence, for example, that he had asked for written confirmation of his leave arrangement, or that he had changed his behavior after being told he was eligible. What the court found instead was that Dobrowski’s plans for leave were fixed before he was informed of his FMLA eligibility and did not change thereafter. His early emails and communications regarding the surgery never asked permission to take leave, did not discuss FMLA rights, and did not indicate a willingness to delay or reschedule his surgery.

Although Dobrowski was unsuccessful in this case, it is important to remember that different facts could have led to a different result. The Sixth Circuit suggests that if Dobrowski had presented any credible evidence that he had changed his position based on Jay Dee’s misrepresentation, the case might not have been decided favorably to Jay Dee. It is comforting, however, to know that, at least within the federal courts in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan, an employer’s mistaken grant of FMLA leave to an employee who is actually FMLA-ineligible will not always foreclose the employer from later defending an FMLA claim on the basis that the employee was, in fact, never eligible to take leave at all.

If you have questions regarding FMLA issues, please contact any member of Greenebaum’s Labor and Employment Practice Group.

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Greenebaum Doll & McDonald PLLC is a widely-respected business law firm with approximately 200 legal professionals in six offices, serving local, national and international clients in virtually every industry. A forward-thinking business law firm, Greenebaum is committed to the practice of Breakthrough Law®.

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