The Employer's Legal Resource: How Much FMLA Training Would $160K Buy Your Supervisors?
That may be one question the VP of HR for Smithway Motor Xpress asked himself after a federal judge hammered the trucking firm with more than $160,000 in back pay and liquidated damages for interfering with Christine Dollar's FMLA rights. And that didn't include attorney fees and costs! The lesson? Wise leaders invest in training to equip supervisors to avoid costly FMLA liability.
Here's what happened. Dollar supervised truck drivers at Smithway. She started missing work for reasons that were initially unclear. Over the next few months, she suffered anxiety and insomnia so severe that a friend finally rushed her to the emergency room. Dollar called her supervisor before her next shift to report her absence. The next day, she called back to let the supervisor know she was seeking treatment for depression at a mental health center and had received a doctor's note releasing her from work for a week. (That's when the FMLA bells and whistles should have gone off in the supervisor's head had he been adequately trained.) But, instead of treating the notice from Dollar as a request for FMLA leave, the supervisor contacted Dollar and told her she had been removed from her job and would be transferred to a different position when the VP of HR returned from vacation two weeks later. Making matters worse, Swithway fired Dollar when she could not return to work immediately, though she had asked for extensions of her leave and provided medical documentation supporting her need for leave.
The parties tried the case to a federal judge who ruled that Smithway interfered with Dollar's FMLA rights. The judge found that Smithway failed to recognize and accept Dollar's notice of need for leave to receive treatment for depression as a sufficient request for FMLA leave. The court awarded Dollar over $80,000 in back pay and another $80,000 in liquidated damages.
Other lessons. First, this is a fairly simple FMLA case. It therefore serves as a potent reminder that FMLA can be triggered even though the employee never mentions "FMLA." An employee need only provide enough information to indicate that the leave might be FMLA-qualifying. Second, it illustrates why it is still so crucial to adequately educate supervisors and managers (and in this case, even the VP of HR) about basic FMLA rights and responsibilities, particularly the types of situations that could trigger FMLA coverage (which is where the interference tends to begin). In an FMLA interference case, all a plaintiff needs to prove is a right to FMLA and some act of interference by the employer that causes harm. Intent to harm or motive is absolutely irrelevant. Moreover, supervisors can be held personally liable under the FMLA, making violations that much more risky not only for employers, but also for individual leaders. The Dollar case is another strong reminder of how important it is to conduct ongoing training and education.
By Christopher S. Thrutchley, firstname.lastname@example.org