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Staples Decision Reiterates the Importance of FMLA Notifications for Employers

Published by on July 20, 2015

On June 4, 2015, the Department of Labor issued a News Release entitled “Staples to pay fired employee $275K in wages, benefits and damages after failing to inform him of job protections to care for ill family member.” A review of the details and finer points in this case demonstrate that it is an ideal […]

On June 4, 2015, the Department of Labor issued a News Release entitled “Staples to pay fired employee $275K in wages, benefits and damages after failing to inform him of job protections to care for ill family member.” A review of the details and finer points in this case demonstrate that it is an ideal teaching case to reiterate the importance for employers of complying with *all* of the FMLA’s provisions.

Jeffrey Angstadt had been working for Staples and its predecessor company since 2007. In September 2010, Angstadt told his supervisor that his wife was critically ill and that he needed leave to take care of her. Angstadt was eligible for FMLA-protected leave, but no one at Staples mentioned it to him at the time. Instead, for the next two years, Angstadt used a combination of personal, sick, and vacation days, as well as working remotely, to continue working while taking care of his ill wife.

In January 2012, Staples fired Angstadt because the company determined that he wasn’t meeting his job responsibilities. Two months later, the Department of Labor (DOL) began an investigation, and in June 2013, the department initiated a lawsuit against Staples for violating the FMLA, specifically in its failure to inform Angstadt of his rights.

According to the press release, “As part of a settlement agreement reached with Staples Inc. and Staples Contract and Commercial Inc., the Staples defendants have agreed to pay Angstadt $137,500 in lost wages and benefits, plus an equal amount in liquidated damages. The agreement was reached in a consent decree approved by a federal court.”

What sticks out in this case is that the suit was based on a failure to inform Angstadt of his rights under the FMLA. The question isn’t “Did Angstadt receive enough leave?” or “Was Angstadt fired for a legal reason?” Every other question of law was eclipsed by the fact that Staples did not notify Angstadt that he was eligible for FMLA when they initially learned that he needed leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason.

Since this case was all about providing proper notice of FMLA Rights, and not specifically concerned with whether or not the actual enumerated rights were given or denied, it is an essential reminder that proper notice is as critical to FMLA compliance as is the actual provision for FMLA components.

To that end, here below are key points on FMLA notice that employers should apply. Keep in mind that these are only the initial notice requirements, and employers may have additional notice requirements throughout the FMLA leave as well.

First, an employee does not need to ask for FMLA leave by name. Employees may not be aware they are entitled to FMLA, and the law takes that into account, placing the burden of identifying a potential FMLA leave on the employer.

This means that employers should educate supervisors and other employees who may be the first ones hearing of the request for leave, so that they can identify FMLA-qualifying leave and take appropriate steps to pass the request on to HR. As the Staples case clearly indicates, notification by an employee that they need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason should have been enough to set the FMLA wheels into motion.

When in doubt, provide FMLA notifications and use the DOL’s form notices. Section 825.300 of the FMLA Regulations specifically spells out what notifications must be given. They are as follows:

1. General Notice – Every employer covered by the FMLA must post a notice in the workplace explaining the Act and providing procedures for filing complaints. Here is a link to a DOL sample notice that you can use.

2. Eligibility Notice – Employers who catch a “whiff” of the potential need for FMLA-protected leave should notify the employee of their eligibility to take FMLA within five business days. The eligibility notice should state whether the employee is or is not eligible for FMLA under the Regulations, and if the employee is not eligible, the notice should state why. Form WH-381 can be used for this purpose.

3. Rights and Responsibilities Notice – Employers must also provide written notice detailing the specific expectations and obligations of the employee, and explaining the consequences of failure to meet the obligations. A prototype notice can be found attached to Form WH-381 and employers can adapt the notice as appropriate. See Section 825.300(c) for a detailed explanation of how the notice should be adapted.

4. Designation Notice – Employers must provide notice to employees that their leave has or has not been designated FMLA-protected within five business days of such a determination. A prototype notice can be found here and employers can adapt the notice as appropriate. See Section 825.300(d) for a detailed explanation of how the notice should be adapted.

The consequences for failure to provide notice are severe. Failure to follow the notice requirements set forth in the FMLA Regulations can constitute an interference with, restraint, or denial of the exercise of an employee’s FMLA rights.

As the Staples case clearly indicates, it doesn’t matter what happens after that – you could give the employee all the time off he or she needs, and still be in violation of the law. This is a perfect example of the importance of establishing a procedure to ensure your company is complying with all of the requirements of the FMLA.

Laconic Lookout:

The FMLA is a minefield for employers and the notice requirements are no exception. Establishing processes and procedures for recognizing potential FMLA leave and making use of the DOL’s form notices represent a critical and essential step forward.

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