FMLA Leave: To Designate or Not Designate--That Was the Question

June 20, 2002

You have probably heard the expression “no good deed goes unpunished.” This saying is best illustrated by a recent decision from the United States Supreme Court. On January 7, 2002, Wolverine World Wide was “punished” by having to defend its actions in terminating a woman who had taken almost seven consecutive months of sick time!

At issue was a Department of Labor regulation related to the timely designation of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”). The regulation provided an employer must designate leave as “FMLA leave,” or else it does not count against the employee’s FMLA leave allotment.

The “good deed” came much earlier. Back in 1996, Wolverine provided thirty weeks of unpaid sick time to its employees. Moreover, the company continued paying health insurance premiums for the employees who were taking time off under the policy. Tracy Ragsdale applied for-and received-time off under this policy after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. However, the company never explicitly told her “this also counts towards your FMLA entitlement.”

At the end of her thirty weeks, Ragsdale was still medically unable to return to work and asked for twelve additional weeks of leave under the FMLA. The company declined to give Ragsdale more time off and terminated her. She filed suit claiming the company violated the FMLA because she was never told her thirty weeks of unpaid sick leave included her twelve weeks of FMLA. Because Ragsdale had already received more leave than required by the FMLA, the Court held Wolverine's failure to explicitly notify Ragsdale “you are now taking FMLA” did not matter.

This case is good news for employers who are slow in identifying FMLA leave situations. However, it underscores the importance of clearly communicating leave (and other) polices to your employees. If Wolverine had done that, their good deed of providing a lengthy period of sick time may not have been punished by a long, expensive trip to the United States Supreme Court.

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