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Supreme Court Rules On Department of Labor FMLA Regulation Requiring Individualized Notice

Volume 1, Issue 6
April 8, 2002

Supreme Court Strikes Down Labor Department FMLA rule.

On March 19, 2002, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Department of Labor regulation that penalizes employers who fail to provide timely and individualized notice to employees of their decision to designate leave as covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). Under this regulation, employers who do not provide employees with individualized notice lose the right to deduct leave time from the twelve (12) week annual entitlement of unpaid leave provided by the FMLA to qualifying employees. As a result, employers were often penalized in having to provide employees with even more leave than the 12 weeks required by the FMLA.

In the case, Wolverine Worldwide Inc., granted employee Tracy Ragsdale 7 months of unpaid leave to undergo surgery and radiation treatment to combat Hodgkin’s disease. However, the employer never notified Ms. Ragsdale that her leave was counted as FMLA leave. When she requested additional leave time, the employer discharged her. Ms Ragsdale sued, arguing that her 7 months of leave could not be counted against her FMLA leave because she failed to receive the required FMLA notification paperwork. According to Department of Labor regulations, “[i]f an employee takes paid or unpaid leave and the employer does not designate the leave as FMLA leave, the leave taken does not count against an employee’s FMLA entitlement”.

A sharply divided Supreme Court found the regulation invalid, reasoning that the penalty provisions were contrary to the FMLA and beyond the authority of the Secretary of Labor. The Court observed that the regulation imposes an irrebuttable presumption that an employer’s failure to provide the individualized notice unlawfully impairs employees’ exercise of their FMLA rights. The Court’s majority found such a presumption to have “no empirical or logical basis”. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court stopped short of deciding whether individualized notice is necessary to carry out the FMLA.

The Supreme Court’s decision is a great win for employers. However, given the limitations on this decision, Nevada employers are well advised to continue to provide the individualized notice to employees, at least until the Supreme Court or the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit directly examines the notice provisions themselves. Further, courts may well find that there are some situations, albeit rare, in which the failure to provide individualized notice impairs an employee’s FMLA rights, thus allowing them to sue for consequential damages and equitable relief. Additionally, Nevada employers must still ensure that any leave credited against an employee’s 12 week FMLA allotment is actually FMLA qualifying. Thus, the continued use of FMLA leave certifications, such as the model medical certificate issued by the Department of Labor, Form WH-380, should still be used.

Ragsdale v Wolverine Worldwide Inc., Case No. 00-6029 (March 19, 2002).

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.