In Bellone v. Southwick-Tolland Regional
School District, the First Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled that, because an employee suffered no harm from an
employer's failures related to Family and Medical Leave Act
("FMLA") notices, the employer was entitled to prevail,
despite its failures. The First Circuit reasoned that the employee's
failure to return to work at the end of his FMLA leave allotment was
more significant to the claim than the employer's late FMLA notices.
Law. The FMLA requires
employers to send an employee an FMLA eligibility notice within five
business days of learning that the employee's leave may be for an
FMLA-qualifying reason. This eligibility notice must contain certain
information, including the employee's rights and responsibilities
under the FMLA.
the employer receives adequate notice from which it can determine
that the employee's absence qualifies for FMLA coverage, the employer
has five business days to provide the employee with a notice about
its decision on whether the medical leave is considered FMLA leave.
An employer's failure to provide the right notices in a timely manner
may be a violation of the FMLA.
Background. In Bellone,
the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant in federal
district court after he was terminated for failing to return to work
from FMLA leave. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the
defendant interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to timely
furnish the required notices.
plaintiff had previously provided medical certification to the
defendant that indicated that he was unable to work for an extended
period of time. Although the defendant determined that the plaintiff
was eligible for FMLA leave, it failed to timely send an FMLA
eligibility notice. Ultimately, the defendant provided all of the
required FMLA notices to the plaintiff and approved his absence as
the expiration of the plaintiff's FMLA leave allotment, the defendant
sent the plaintiff a letter stating that, in order to continue to
hold his job, the plaintiff had to respond with evidence of his
fitness for duty within seven days. The plaintiff's physician
responded, stating that there were no medical reasons that the
plaintiff could not return to work.
defendant proceeded to schedule the plaintiff to return to work in a
slightly different position but with the same salary and benefits.
When the plaintiff failed to return to work, the defendant terminated
trial, the district court dismissed the plaintiff's claim because it
found no evidence that the plaintiff was harmed by the defendant's
FMLA violations. The court noted that the defendant gave the
plaintiff his full FMLA allotment, and that the plaintiff was not
eligible to return to work before the expiration of his allotment.
The plaintiff appealed the lower court's decision to the First
Circuit's Decision. On review, the First
Circuit determined that, even though the defendant had violated the
FMLA, actual harm was a required element of the plaintiff's claim.
The First Circuit found that the plaintiff did not provide any
evidence to support a finding of actual harm or that he would have
acted differently had the defendant timely provided the FMLA notices.
The First Circuit noted that the plaintiff's inability to work, and
not the defendant's untimely FMLA notices, caused the plaintiff's
harm. Accordingly, the First Circuit upheld the lower court's
decision to dismiss the plaintiff's claim.
of Bellone. Although the plaintiff prevailed in Bellone, employers should
still be reminded of the need to provide complete and timely FMLA
notices. With a slightly different fact pattern, the defendant in Bellone would be in a much
less advantageous position because its delays clearly violated FMLA.
Accordingly, employers are advised to process employees' requests for
medical leave promptly, providing the required FMLA notices within
the five-day time frames. By doing so, employers can prevent
unnecessary litigation and ensure that employees are treated fairly
under FMLA every time.