Employer must seek more information when employee requests FMLA leave to care for ailing grandfather

A federal district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of an employer that denied an employee’s request for FMLA leave in order to care for his seriously ill grandfather who had raised him as a child, ruled the Second Circuit. The lower court ruled that the employee’s failure to inform the employer that he had an in loco parentis relationship with his grandfather was dispositive. However, after the employee expressly requested leave to care for his grandfather, the employer was obligated to specify any additional information that it needed to determine whether the employee was entitled to such leave, the appeals court held.

The employee sought FMLA leave to care for his grandfather, who had raised him since before the age of four, after the employee’s father died. The grandfather, who had suffered a stroke in 2011, lived with the employee and suffered from a number of chronic medical conditions. In January 2013, the grandfather was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with bronchitis. The employee was concerned that his grandfather should not be left unattended, so he decided to stay home and care for him until he could secure the assistance of a home health aide. He sought FMLA leave, but the employer denied his leave request, informing him that the statute does not apply to grandparents. When he remained at home to care for his grandfather nonetheless, he was discharged.

In loco parentis relationship. The employee filed suit, alleging that the employer interfered with his rights under the FMLA. The employer contended that it was not obligated to inform employees affirmatively of the FMLA’s coverage of in loco parentis relationships. Because the employee did not inform the employer of the in loco parentis relationship when he requested FMLA leave, the district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Obligation to seek further information. On appeal, the employee asserted that he provided the employer with sufficient information to permit it to understand that his leave request was potentially within the scope of the FMLA, and that if he did not provide sufficient information it was only because the employer failed in its obligations (a) to provide him with information as to his right to seek such leave under the Act’s in loco parentis provision; and (b) to request further information from him. Finding that the employer was required to inquire further of the employee before denying his request for FMLA leave, the Second Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court.

Notice responsibilities. Department of Labor regulations require that employees must provide sufficient information for the employer to determine if leave may qualify for FMLA protection. Covered employers must inform employees requesting leave whether they are eligible under the FMLA. The employer “must” specify whether, and what, additional information is required for a determination of whether the employee is entitled to such leave.

Here, the district court imposed an obligation on the employee to provide the employer with all of the necessary details to permit a definitive determination of the FMLA’s applicability at or before the time of the request. In the absence of a request for additional information, an employee has provided sufficient notice to his employer if that notice indicates reasonably that the FMLA may apply. Thus, the district court erred in ruling that the employee was required, at the time of his request, to provide the employer with all of the information it needed to determine with certainty that his requested leave was within the FMLA.

Sufficiency of employee’s notice. There was no question that an employee’s request for leave to care for his seriously ill grandfather seeks leave that “may” qualify for FMLA protection. The very reason that Congress in the FMLA defined “parent” and “son or daughter” to include, respectively, “an individual who stood in loco parentis to an employee when the employee” was “under 18 years of age,” and “a child of a person standing in loco parentis,” was to “reflect the reality that many children in the United States today do not live in traditional ‘nuclear’ families with their biological father and mother,” and are increasingly raised by others including “their grandparents.”

Both the express provisions in the FMLA for coverage with respect to in loco parentis relationships and the express example of a grandmother in the publication available to employers on the DOL website, made it reasonable for the employer to understand that the employee’s request for leave in order to take care of his seriously ill grandfather might come within the FMLA.

Accordingly, the district court erred in ruling that the employee’s notice to the employer was deficient because he did not specify the in loco parentis relationship with his grandfather at or before the time he requested FMLA leave, and in ruling that the employer was entitled as a matter of law to deny the employee FMLA leave without requesting additional information.

SOURCE: Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, (CA-2), No. 15-1113, February 9, 2017.

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