FMLA’s limitations period was a statutory right that could not be waived by contract

Refusing to dismiss a fired employee’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims, a federal district court in Indiana first found that it was not barred by a six-month contractual limitations period because the longer two-year statutory period was an FMLA right that could not be waived. The court also found that the employee sufficiently pleaded her claims by alleging that she had a serious health condition, about which the employer knew, and she was fired because she had to miss too much work to receive treatment.

Contractual limitations period.

Before she began working for Rapid Global as a production control supervisor at one of its client’s production sites, the employee signed an employment agreement stating, among other things, that “any claim or lawsuit arising out of my employment with or my application for employment with the Company or any of its subsidiaries must be filed no more than six (6) months after the date of the employment action that is the subject of the claim or lawsuit. While I understand that the statute of limitations for claims arising out of any employment may be longer than six (6) months, I agree to be bound by the six (6) month period of limitations set forth herein, and I WAIVE ANY STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS TO THE CONTRARY.”

Terminated for being absent too long.

In March 2015, the plant where the employee worked had a fire, exposing her to toxic fumes that exacerbated a chronic health condition. She reported the worsening of her condition to the plant manager and he told her to “take care of her health.” On May 27, she called Rapid Global and its client, FCA, to report she could not come to work due to breathing problems. She took off again on May 28, and on June 1 informed the employer that her doctor told her to stay off work through June 10 due to her serious health condition. On June 5, Rapid Global informed her that FCA was terminating her contract because she was going to be off work for too long.

FMLA suit.

The employee filed suit under the FMLA against both Rapid Global and FCA, and the defendants moved to dismiss arguing that the claims were barred by the contractual limitations period and that she failed to state a claim for either retaliation or interference.

Can’t waive FMLA’s limitations period.

Denying the motion, the court first discussed whether an employee can contractually waive the FMLA’s two-year limitations period (three years for willful violations). While it is well-established that, in absence of a controlling statute the contrary, a contract can validly limit the time for bringing an action to a period that is itself “reasonable,” numerous other courts have found that such limitations clauses are not enforceable in the context of the FMLA. Agreeing with those decisions, the court here explained that the FMLA forbids employer’s from interfering with or restraining right under the Act, and under 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d), employees cannot waive, and employers cannot induce employees to waive, their rights under the FMLA.

Further, under the FMLA, “an action may be brought. . . not later than 2 years after the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which the action is brought.” This language suggested to the court that Congress implemented the statute of limitations for the benefit of FMLA plaintiffs, not the defendants. Accordingly, the six-month contractual limitations period in this case sought to preclude the employee from exercising her right under the FMLA, and was unenforceable.

Sufficiently pleaded FMLA claims.

Also rejected was the defendants’ contention that the employee failed to state a claim. The defendants argued that she failed to plead she required inpatient care or “continuing treatment” by a health care provider, but that was an issue to be addressed on a motion for summary judgment, not a motion to dismiss, explained the court.

At this stage, it was enough that she alleged she had a “chronic health condition” that worsened after the plant fire, that she called off work to treat that condition, that she informed the employer her doctor required to her to be off work until June 10 to treat a serious health condition, and that she was fired because she was “going to be off work too long.” Upon receiving her request for time off to treat her condition, the defendants had a duty to request additional information to ascertain whether the FMLA applied. Thus, assuming the facts as pleaded, the employee adequately demonstrated that the decision to terminate her employment because she would be off of work for too long, rather than provide her with the time off or at least request more information, could render both Rapid Global and FCA liable for retaliation and interference.

SOURCE: McKinley v. Rapid Global Business Solutions, Inc. (S.D. Ind.), No. 1:17-cv-00621-MJM-MJD, July 26, 2017
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