A recent First Circuit of Appeals decision addresses what happens when an employer erroneously tells an employee that they are entitled to the Family Medical Leave Act leave (“ FMLA”). The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to care for a family member who is seriously injured. To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12-month period before taking the leave.
In the case of Kathleen Nagle v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District decided on July 30, 2009, the facts were that Nagle worked for the School District as a part-time employee in the position of a school monitor. On January 12, 2004, Nagle requested leave under the FMLA in order to tend to her ailing husband. Nagle was not eligible because in the 12 months prior to her request she had worked only worked 554 hours where she would have been required to work 1,250 hours to be eligible. Nagle asserts that George Frost, the Superintendent, told her she could take FMLA leave. She also took subsequent leave she states she was led to believe was FMLA leave and at the end of the school year her employment with the School District was terminated. The School District denied that Foster or anyone else assured her that she could take FMLA leave and denies that she was terminated for taking any leave. The School District sought a summary judgment to prevent the case from going to a jury trial arguing that Nagle is not entitled to a trial as to whether or not Frost’s alleged assurance that she could take FMLA leave harmed her because Frost was acting as a representative of the School District which is part of the government.
Nagle did not claim in court that she was eligible for FMLA leave, but argued that the School District was estopped from denying coverage under the legal theory of equitable estoppel. A party seeking to assert equitable estoppel must demonstrate that: (a) the party to be estopped made a definite misrepresentation of fact to another person having reason to belief that the other person would rely upon it; (b) the party seeking estoppel relied upon the misrepresentation to its detriment; and (c) the reliance was reasonable in that the party claiming the estoppel did not know or should have known that its adversary’s conduct was misleading. The Court noted that if the School District were a private employer, Nagle would be entitled to a trial as to whether Frost did misrepresent matters, as to her reliance and the reasonableness of that reliance. The equitable estoppel argument was denied in that case because the School District was part of the government. For private employers, this case should give those in management caution to be careful about giving inaccurate guidance to employees about their employment rights in that if they mislead an employee into believing that they have certain rights, such as FMLA leave, the employer may need to stand by those representations.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].