Employee’s Claim That Employer Should Be Equitably Estopped From Denying FMLA For Ineligible Absence Fails

An employee who alleged that she was demoted from her 90-day temporary assignment in retaliation for leaving work to care for her ailing uncle failed to prove that her employer should be barred from denying FMLA leave under federal common law estoppel principles, according to the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Dawkins v Fulton County Government. Although the employee had acknowledged that her absence was not covered by the FMLA, she nevertheless contended that the employer was equitably estopped from disputing her FMLA eligibility because her manager approved her FMLA leave. However, the employee was unable to show that she relied on any misrepresentation, or that any such reliance was both reasonable and detrimental. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court judgment without deciding whether federal common law equitable estoppel applies to the FMLA.

Emergency leave. The employee, a building maintenance manager for Fulton County, was temporarily reassigned to a building mechanic manager position, which carried a ten percent salary increase. Two weeks after the reassignment, she learned that her uncle was terminally ill, and requested emergency leave. Her emailed leave request had “FMLA” on the subject line. Two hours later, her supervisor approved the leave, and the employee left work.

Four days later, the employer rescinded her temporary assignment due to her absence. When the employee returned to work she was reinstated to her original position. After five months had passed, the employee filed an EEOC complaint on an unrelated issue and, at that time, complained about being removed from the temporary assignment. Following an EEOC investigation, the employer paid her in full the wages she would have received if the temporary assignment had not been rescinded. Thereafter, she filed a complaint alleging Title VII retaliation and FMLA retaliation, among other claims.

The employee argued that the employer should be estopped from denying that her leave was FMLA-qualifying where there was no evidence that her supervisor’s approval was invalid, and she never had notice that her leave was not counted as FMLA leave.

Equitable estoppel. The Eleventh Circuit has never applied equitable estoppel to expand FMLA coverage to unqualified absences, a magistrate judge observed, finding in any event that the elements of estoppel were not met in this case. The employee’s supervisor was not aware of the true facts regarding the employee’s FMLA eligibility when he sent the email saying she was “approved.” The district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and granted summary judgment to the employer. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that the employer was not equitably estopped from denying the employee’s FMLA eligibility.

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