Employees Who Request FMLA Leave Are Legally Protected Before They Take Any Leave

Last week, I discussed the Third Circuit’s recent decision regarding when time worked from home counts toward the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)’s 1,250 hour eligibility requirement. The same case, Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Company, also addresses whether an employee who requests but does not receive an FMLA leave is protected by the FMLA.

The FMLA has two separate provisions, one that prohibits employers from interfering with an employee’s FMLA rights, and another that prohibits employers from retaliating against employees. The FMLA’s interference with rights provisions prohibit employers from (1) interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of or attempt to exercise, any right provided by the FMLA; and (2) discharging or in any other manner discriminating against any individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by the FMLA. In contrast, to establish a retaliation claim under the FMLA, an employee must prove that (1) he is protected under the FMLA; (2) he suffered an adverse employment action, such as being fired, demoted, or suspended, and (3) the adverse employment action was caused by the employee’s exercise of his FMLA rights.

The Third Circuit noted that “it would be patently absurd if an employer who wished to punish an employee for taking FMLA leave could avoid liability simply by firing the employee before the leave begins.” In other words, the Court has no doubt that employees are protected by the FMLA when they request FMLA leaves, even if they never actually take an FMLA leave. The court concluded that, depending on the circumstances, firing an employee for making a valid request for FMLA leave can constitute either an interference with the employee’s FMLA rights, unlawful retaliation, or both.

This interpretation of the FMLA is important because it protects employees who suffer adverse consequences because they requested FMLA leave, even if those consequences occur before their leave begins. It also appears to protect some employees who request an FMLA leave, mistakenly believing they are entitled to one, such as employees who fall just short of the 1,250 hour eligibility requirement, or who do not meet the FMLA’s definition of a serious health condition. Hopefully, future cases will clarify just how far the Court will extend this rule.