In order to be granted a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee first must fulfill certain eligibility requirements, including having worked for the employer for at least 12 months, and having worked for at least 1250 hours within the prior calendar year. Individuals who do not reach those initial thresholds typically do not qualify for FMLA leave. However, on July 17, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a motion to dismiss the claim of a county nursing assistant who was fired because she took FMLA leave to care for her son, finding that the employer was estopped from arguing that the FMLA discrimination claim should be dismissed based on ineligibility under the leave law, because county officials had led the plaintiff to believe that she was qualified to take such leave. Medley v. Montgomery County, EDPA, No. 2:12-cv-01995, July 17, 2012.

Amy Medley was employed by Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, as a nursing assistant. Medley’s son has serious health conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome, developmental delay, and anxiety disorder. Although she had worked for less than 1250 hours during the prior 12 month period, Medley requested and was granted intermittent leave to care for her son. County officials told Medley that she qualified for FMLA leave, and asked her to fill out various County FMLA forms. She also was provided with documents that stated that she was eligible for “family care” leave after three continuous months of employment.

However, as Medley began to take intermittent leave, she was written up for her absences. When she raised the issue with a County “H.R. Official” on April 19, 2011, she was dissuaded from filing a grievance and was told not to worry, because “nothing was going to be done to her.” The next day, Medley’s employment was terminated, and she was told she was fired because of leave she exercised on April 17, 2011, once of the absences that Medley believed was covered by her “FMLA” leave.

Medley filed a lawsuit in federal court, including claims of interference with her FMLA rights and of retaliation under that Act. The County filed a Motion to Dismiss the complaint, arguing that Medley’s claims should be dismissed because it was undisputed that Medley did not satisfy this basic prerequisite for an FMLA claim. In response, Medley argued that because she was told that she was eligible for FMLA leave, the doctrine of equitable estoppel should now preclude the County from asserting that her FMLA claims fail because she was not eligible.

Upon review, the district court determined that Medley’s claim of interference with her FMLA rights failed, simply because Medley possessed no actual FMLA right with which the County could have interfered. However, in order to support her claim of retaliation, Medley simply had to show that she was treated adversely because she took FMLA leave. In reviewing that claim, the court determined that actual entitlement to FMLA leave was not an essential element of the claim. Instead, the court quoted a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which held that “[A]n employer who without intent to deceive makes a definite but erroneous representation to his employee that she is . . . entitled to leave under the FMLA, and has reason to believe that the employee will rely upon it, may be estopped to assert a defense of non-coverage” if the employee reasonably relied on the misrepresentation to her detriment. While the district court refused to allow Medley’s interference claim, it allowed her retaliation claim to go forward under that analysis.

Although the difference between the district court’s analysis of Medley’s interference claim and its analysis of her retaliation claim is subtle, it is worth understanding. While the court refused to retroactively endow Medley with actual FMLA rights because of her employer’s misinformation about her eligibility, it also refused to allow that employer to take advantage of the mistake by firing Medley for what she believed to be FMLA-related absences.

Although this decision could be appealed to the Third Circuit, the district court’s message is clear: once an employer grants FMLA leave to an individual, even if that allowance is based upon a miscalculation of eligibility requirements, the employer cannot then take adverse action based upon an absence associated with the faux FMLA leave. To do so may create liability for under the FMLA for a claim of retaliation.