U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down First FMLA Decision

Kevin M. Gold

On March 19, 2002, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, invalidated a regulation promulgated under the Family and Medical Leave Act that penalized employers who fail to give employees notice in advance that their leave would qualify as FMLA leave. This case appears to be a victory for those employers who have granted employees the full extent of their leave rights under the FMLA, but may not have provided specific notice that those rights were being exercised and counted under the FMLA.

At issue in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc. was an employee who had taken 30 weeks of leave under her employer's more generous leave provision. However, upon the commencement of leave, Ragsdale's employer, Wolverine World Wide, Inc., failed to tell her that the leave she was taking would qualify as FMLA leave. After Ragsdale failed to return to work, she was terminated and later sued Wolverine claiming that she was in entitled to an additional 12 weeks of FMLA because Wolverine had failed to designate her prior leave as FMLA leave.

The regulation in question was 29 CFR ยง825.700(a) which states that if an employee takes medical leave "and the employer does not designate the leave as FMLA leave, the leave taken does not count against an employee's FMLA entitlement." The Supreme Court found that because Ragsdale had been granted at least 12 weeks of leave, the failure to notify her in advance that her leave was qualifying under the FMLA was not fatal to the employer's defense that she had been afforded all of her leave rights and thus did not entitle her to an additional 12 weeks of leave.

In dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor found that the prior notice provision was important because it "can facilitate leave planning, allowing employees to organize their health treatments or family obligations around the total amount of leave they will ultimately be provided."

Although the Court did not pass judgment on the notice provisions themselves, and it is unclear what effect the failure to give notice may have on employees who are not given at least 12 weeks of leave or otherwise treated in accordance with the FMLA requirements, the case is of some relief to employers who have granted employees 12 weeks or more of leave but failed to notify them that it would be counted as FMLA leave. However, the better practice is to give employees both leave request forms and notice of the granting of FMLA leave immediately upon learning facts that may give rise to an employee's entitlement to leave and after leave has been approved.