Court again declines to decide whether equitable estoppel applies under FMLA

Even assuming, without deciding, that equitable estoppel is available in the FMLA context, a hearing center worker did not rely to her detriment on her employer’s representation that she was eligible for FMLA leave, held the Eleventh Circuit in an unpublished decision. Because the worker’s employer did not meet the 50-employee threshold for coverage under the statute, the court affirmed dismissal of her FMLA interference and retaliation claims on summary judgment.

50-employee threshold not met. First, the court addressed whether or not she was covered by the statute. In order for the FMLA to apply, an employer must have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of the worksite. This is both a threshold jurisdictional issue and a required element of an employee’s claim. Regardless of whether the worker’s primary worksite was in Decatur or Gadsden, the employer’s business records clearly showed that it employed fewer than 50 individuals within 75 miles of either location.

Although in certain situations an employee may aggregate the employees of separate corporate entities to reach the 50-employee minimum, the worker abandoned this argument by failing to raise it in her initial brief, and in any case the argument failed on the merits. The hearing center and an affiliated laboratory, combined, still employed fewer than 50 individuals within 75 miles of her worksites.

Equitable estoppel argument. This left the worker’s equitable estoppel argument. The Eleventh Circuit has not yet determined whether the doctrine applies as a matter of federal common law in the FMLA context. In a 2013 case, Dawkins v. Fulton County Government, the appeals court disposed of the issue on the ground that even if the doctrine were available, the required elements were not met. The same was true here, the court found.

Even assuming that equitable estoppel applies to FMLA claims, the worker did not establish an essential element: that she detrimentally relied on the hearing center’s misrepresentation that she was eligible for FMLA leave.

Detrimental reliance. To demonstrate detrimental reliance, she needed to show that the hearing center’s actions caused her to change her position for the worse. As it happened, her medical condition necessitated emergency surgery nearly two weeks before her originally scheduled leave date, making it difficult for her to show that she detrimentally relied on her employer’s representation that she was eligible for leave. Because she could not establish detrimental reliance, the court had no need to reach the broader question of whether equitable estoppel ever applies under the FMLA.

The court affirmed summary judgment dismissing the worker’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims.

SOURCE: Cowman v. Northland Hearing Centers, Inc., No. 15-11493, October 7, 2015, per curiam.

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