Court Finds Employee Entitled to Use Non-FMLA Leave Prior to FMLA Eligibility

On May 8, 2014, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota issued an Opinion in Wages v. Stuart Management Corp. granting summary judgment on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claim brought by an employee who was fired one day before becoming eligible for FMLA leave.

Ena Wages began working for Stuart Management Corp. on November 17, 2008. On November 13, 2009, Ms. Wages’ physician placed restrictions on the number of hours she could work as a result of complications caused by her pregnancy. Ms. Wages was fired on her next scheduled work day, November 16, 2009, which just so happened to be one day prior to her one year anniversary date, a date that would have marked the beginning of her eligibility for FMLA leave.

Ms. Wages filed a lawsuit asserting several claims, including a FMLA claim. With respect to the FMLA claim, both parties moved for summary judgment as the facts regarding Ms. Wages’ termination, and reason therefor, were not in question; Stuart admitted it terminated Ms. Wages’ employment due to its inability to accommodate her work restrictions. Stuart’s argument was that Ms. Wages’ FMLA claim should be dismissed because she was not eligible for FMLA leave until November 17, 2009 and, as such, she had no right to pursue a FMLA claim in the first place. The District Court found otherwise.

Focusing on the language of 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(d), the court noted that “[a]n employee may be on non-FMLA leave at the time he or she meets the 12-month eligibility requirement, and in that event, any portion of the leave taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason after the employee meets the eligibility requirement would be FMLA leave.” Because Ms. Wages could have used sick leave, personal leave, or vacation time to cover her reduced work schedule until she became FMLA-eligible on November 17, 2009, Stuart’s decision to terminate Ms. Wages’ employment instead of allowing her to use another form of leave interfered with Ms. Wages’ FMLA rights.

What is noteworthy about the decision in Wages is many judges are quick to dismiss FMLA claims when an employee is not entitled to FMLA rights at the time of the disciplinary action being challenged. While that is often the correct outcome, Wages provides an example of an instance where the FMLA rights of an employee were extended to cover someone who had not yet become eligible for FMLA leave.