Approving FMLA Leave Does Not Automatically Rule Out Liability

By Amy Pocklington Jul 27, 2016
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An employer that grants an employee's request for medical leave may nevertheless be liable for a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defective rights and responsibilities notice—omitting information about the right to reinstatement—might have interfered with the employee's exercise of his FMLA rights.

John Vannoy, a facilities manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, was battling depression and alcoholism. The bank's medical director was aware of Vannoy's history with depression, and it is undisputed that Vannoy's supervisors made every effort to accommodate his condition. Vannoy struggled with regular attendance throughout the summer of 2010, was diagnosed with severe depression in September and by November was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. Around that time, Vannoy requested and the bank granted one month of FMLA leave, permitting time off from Nov. 10 to Dec. 10. The bank claimed it also sent Vannoy notice of his FMLA rights and responsibilities but that the notice omitted reference to job protection rights.

Vannoy returned to work on Nov. 16. Despite the bank's efforts to assure him otherwise, Vannoy allegedly feared that taking extended time off would result in his termination. Upon receiving a doctor's note, the bank permitted Vannoy to return to work and sent him on a three-day assignment in Baltimore. There, Vannoy failed to report to the worksite, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately resulted in his termination on Dec. 21.

Vannoy sued the bank for interference and retaliation in violation of the FMLA and failure to accommodate and discriminatory discharge in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district court awarded the bank summary judgment on all claims.

On appeal, the 4th Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment as to all claims except for the FMLA interference claim. The court reversed on that claim, finding open questions about whether the bank interfered by providing Vannoy defective notice that failed to mention his right to reinstatement at the conclusion of the medical leave.

The FMLA requires employers to provide a series of individual written notices to employees who qualify for FMLA leave. One such notice—the one at issue in this case—is a "rights and responsibilities" notice. Under federal regulations, the rights and responsibilities notice must include information about the employee's right to "restoration to the same or an equivalent job upon return from FMLA leave." However, a violation of this requirement alone is insufficient to establish FMLA interference. Rather, an employee must be harmed by the violation.

Reversing the district court's decision, the 4th Circuit rejected the argument that the bank's approval of Vannoy's request for FMLA leave foreclosed his FMLA interference claim. Even though the bank approved Vannoy's FMLA leave, Vannoy claimed he did not take his full FMLA leave entitlement and would have structured his leave differently had he received the required job reinstatement information. By allegedly contributing to Vannoy's abbreviated medical leave, the bank's failure to provide notice of Vannoy's job restoration rights precluded summary judgment and exposed the bank to protracted and costly litigation.

Vannoy v. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 4th Cir., No. 14-2375 (June 28, 2016).

Professional Pointer: Ensure FMLA compliance by conforming all notices to FMLA regulations and employing Department of Labor prototypes.

Amy Pocklington is an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Richmond, Va.

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