Does an employee have the right to take FMLA leave and be restored to the same or equivalent position even though the employer does not employ 50 employees and is not covered by the FMLA?  The answer may depend on the particular court hearing the case, as evidenced by a recent federal appellate court decision.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that an employer is not precluded from arguing that its former employee was ineligible for FMLA leave even though the employer previously led the employee to believe he was eligible for FMLA leave and later provided such leave. Dobrowski v. Jay Dee Contractors (pdf).

The Facts

Daniel Dobrowski worked for Jay Dee as a mechanical engineer. He had dealt with epilepsy from a young age and, although he controlled his condition through various treatments, Dobrowski continued to suffer from seizures as an adult. In consultation with his physician, he agreed to undergo surgery as a treatment option. He informed his supervisor about the surgery one month before the procedure. In return, the employer provided him with an FMLA Leave of Absence application form. After Dobrowski returned the form, the employer sent him a letter informing him that, “pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act,” the Company would allow him to take the requested leave and keep his position open for 12 weeks from the time of surgery. Dobrowski underwent surgery and about one month before his FMLA leave was to expire, he attempted to return to work. However, the employer told him his position was being eliminated and it “no longer needed his services.”

Court Ruling

Dobrowski later sued the employer, alleging that its actions violated the FMLA. The employer moved for summary judgment, contending that Dobrowski never was eligible for FMLA protection because the Company employed fewer than 50 employees in a 75-mile radius. In response, Dobrowski argued that the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” prevented the employer from denying his eligibility after it already had informed him at the time of his surgery that he was eligible for FMLA leave and gave him leave pursuant to the Act. The district court rejected Dobrowski’s claim and dismissed the lawsuit. Dobrowski appealed.

The appellate court held that Dobrowski could advance his claim only if he could show that the employer misrepresented a material fact, which Dobrowski reasonably relied on, and that he suffered a detriment as a result. Surprisingly, the court found that Dobrowski already had made the decision to undergo surgery before he was informed of his FMLA rights. Consequently, he did not change his position to his disadvantage in reliance on the belief that his leave would be protected by the FMLA.

Insights for Employers

Although this result clearly is a good one for employers since it narrowly applies the doctrine of equitable estoppel, it departs from cases in several other federal circuits, such as Reaux v. Infohealth Mgmt. Corp. (pdf), in which a federal district court based in Chicago recently allowed a near identical fact pattern to proceed. These conflicting FMLA decisions illustrate the need for employers to determine FMLA eligibility prior to the employee’s leave of absence, and to review their FMLA or other personnel policies to ensure they do not promise leave benefits to employees who otherwise are ineligible for such leave. Further, employers should consider training supervisors and managers on their responsibilities under the FMLA to avoid making inaccurate representations to employees regarding their FMLA eligibility.