Employee Failed to Prove FMLA Leave Allegations

August 13, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - An epileptic mechanical engineer cannot pursue a lawsuit against his former employer over his disputed Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) eligibility, a federal appellate court has ruled.

The 6 th  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling throwing out plaintiff Daniel Dobrowski’s allegation that the former employer, Jay Dee Contractors, improperly fired him in December 2004 after returning from FMLA leave the employer approved. Dobrowski took the leave to undergo surgery related to his epilepsy.

Chief U.S. District Judge Danny J. Boggs, writing for the appellate court, pointed out that Dobrowski was not FMLA-eligible (the company employed fewer than 50 people within a 75-mile radius of Dobrowski’s worksite). Boggs also asserted in the opinion that Dobrowski could not now base his suit on the legal doctrine of equitable estoppel for his employer not ultimately honoring the FMLA leave after mistakenly granting it to him in the first place. Dobrowski contended the employer should be forced to treat him as being FMLA eligible even if he technically did not qualify for that classification.       

Equitable estoppel prevents a party from saying something in court that contradicts his past statements or actions when that contradictory position would be unfair to the other party who relied on the original position.   Boggs explained: ” …the court uses its traditional equitable power to prevent the employer from making an argument that it can be fairly determined to have forfeited based on its behavior toward an employee.”

Key to determining Dobrowski's case, Boggs explained, was the fact that the engineer apparently was not harmed by relying on the mistakenly-granted FMLA leave. More important was whether Dobrowski did anything different by relying on the employer's mistaken FMLA leave grant; in fact, Boggs contended Dobrowski appeared to be more concerned with getting his physician's approval for the elective epilepsy surgery than in whether he would have the legal employment protection contained in the FMLA.  

Further, the employer was not "intentionally or recklessly" misleading Dobrowski with the mistaken FMLA leave; the company's error was in figuring out the number of employees it had near Dobrowski's worksite.

So, in future cases from the 6 th Circuit's jurisdiction coming from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, Boggs said employees making claims similar to Dobrowski's won't have to show the employer was aware of the true facts in the employment dispute.

Future plaintiffs seeking to prevail in similar cases pursued on equitable estoppel grounds will only have to show:

  • a definite misrepresentation as to a material fact;
  • a reasonable reliance on the misrepresentation; and
  • a resulting detriment to the party reasonably relying on the misrepresentation.  

The ruling in the case, Dobrowski v. Jay Dee Contractors , No. 08-1806 (6th Cir. July 8, 2009), is available  here