Court Shields Govt. Employers from Employee Estoppel Suits

August 6, 2009 ( - A split federal appellate court panel has ruled that employees suing a governmental employer cannot rely on a rule designed to prohibit people from making assertions out of court and contrary ones before a judge.

The 1 st  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Kathleen Nagle vs. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District , contended that allowing employment-related cases against a public agency to turn on the legal notion of “equitable estoppel” could be too expensive and disruptive for the proper running of a government unit. In a government, where authority is often more diffuse than in the private sector, there are more officials who could potentially make the sort of public statements that could land the agency in court in an estoppel dispute, the 1 st  Circuit contended.  

“Governments have many ‘agents,’ who may or may not have authority to speak for the government in the matter at hand and whose casual representations are hard to control,” wrote Circuit Judge Michael Boudin, for the court . “Anyone can claim, without any confirming proof, that some official or clerk misinformed the person about his or her legal rights.” 

Boudin said that in a similar employee-employer dispute in the private sector, the employee would have been allowed to move to a trial to allow presentation of proof the representations were made and that it was reasonable for the employee to have relied upon them.

Lower Court Dismisses Suit

In a 2-1 vote, the 1 st  Circuit panel upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge William G. Young of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Young declined to apply the estoppel rule and threw out the suit by Nagle against the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, alleging a school district official had assured her she could take time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for her ill husband, but then she was fired for taking the leave. Nagle had worked for the school district since 2000 as a part-time school monitor.

Under the estoppel rule, Nagle maintained in the suit, the employer should be prevented from firing her because of the leave when its representative had already told her she could take it. “The doctrine seeks to prevent injustice when an individual detrimentally and predictably relies on the misrepresentation of another,” the appellate court explained.

For its part, the school district countered that the estoppel question was moot since Nagle was not eligible for FMLA leave (she had worked 554 hours in the 12 months before requesting FMLA leave when the law requires FMLA applicants to have worked 1,250 hours during the prior year). The employer contended her job had actually ended because the district had completed construction work on a new building and no longer needed monitors in the parking lots.

In his dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez insisted that Young's decision should be thrown out and that Nagle should be permitted to invoke the estoppel doctrine in a public-employer context.

Lipez rejected arguments by the majority that permitting the estoppel use against a government employer would be permitting too many legal claims without basis.

"Opening the door more widely to estoppel claims that are consistent with government policies will not trigger a flood of spurious lawsuits," Lipez wrote in the dissent. "That consistency will not be commonplace. Many low-stakes claims will never be brought because of the high cost of litigating them."

Besides, Lipez added, "judges are capable of sorting out the meritorious filings from the frivolous ones in the early stages of litigation."

The 1 st  Circuit opinion is available here