Employee Denied FMLA Leave for Sick Grandparent Can Go to Jury

By Jeffrey Rhodes Mar 15, 2017
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​A credit union employee who was fired while taking leave to care for his recently hospitalized grandfather has a triable claim that the business violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because his grandfather acted in the place of his parents when he was younger, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Frantz Coutard worked at Municipal Credit Union (MCU) until Jan. 22, 2013, when his grandfather, Jean Manesson Dumond, was taken to a hospital by ambulance for bronchitis. Dumond had had a stroke in 2011 and was suffering from a number of chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma, prostate cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease, while living with Coutard. Although Dumond was released from the hospital on Jan. 23, 2013, Coutard believed that Dumond was seriously ill and decided to stay home with him until a home health aide could be hired.

MCU denied Coutard leave, informing him that the FMLA did not apply to the care of a grandparent. Coutard never mentioned to MCU that his grandfather served in the place of his parents when he was younger. According to Coutard, he was raised by Dumond, his maternal grandfather, after his biological father passed away before his fourth birthday. Dumond acted as Coutard's father until he was about 14 years old, even referring to Coutard as his son.

Although MCU did not permit Coutard to take FMLA leave, it advised him to apply for a short-term leave of absence under a separate MCU policy. Coutard took no action and did not work from Jan. 23, 2013, to Feb. 4, 2013, when he was fired for being absent for more than two consecutive days without leave.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

Coutard filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging that MCU interfered with his right to take leave under the FMLA. MCU moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claim because Coutard did not provide sufficient information from which it could reasonably determine whether the FMLA might apply to the request. Coutard also moved for summary judgment in his favor, arguing that MCU was liable under the FMLA.

The district court granted MCU's motion for summary judgment, finding that Coutard did not give MCU sufficient notice of his need for leave.

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit disagreed and ruled that MCU should have inquired further when Coutard stated that he wanted to take leave to care for his grandfather. The appeals court faulted MCU's notice of FMLA rights to Coutard, which stated that leave was not available to care for a grandparent. According to FMLA regulations, the employer must advise the employee that he or she need only provide sufficient information to show that the requested leave may be FMLA-qualifying. If such information is provided by the employee and the employer needs additional information, it is the employer's responsibility to request it.

The court found that Coutard's notice of his situation was sufficient to inform MCU of his potential entitlement to FMLA leave. The appeals court reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and set the case for trial. The court denied Coutard's motion for summary judgment in his favor, however, finding that MCU contested whether Dumond's medical situation rose to the level of a serious medical condition and whether Dumond had raised Coutard in the place of his parents as he claimed. These facts would have to be decided by a jury at trial.

Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, 2nd Cir., No. 15-1113 (Feb. 9, 2017).

Professional Pointer: To encourage full disclosure by an employee, an employer should state clearly and fully all circumstances in which the employee might be entitled to leave and should seek clarification into a vague leave request to determine for certain whether the leave is FMLA-qualifying.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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