The FMLA has many requirements that both employers and employees are required to follow in order to comply with this important federal law. One of those requirements involves submitting appropriate paperwork with regard to FMLA requests for leave. In a recent case against Conagra Foods, food packaging giant, the court addressed the consequences of an employer extending the deadline for submitting FMLA paperwork and then failing to honor that extension.
Shoemaker v. Conagra Foods, Inc.
In a recent case decided in early November, an employee requested FMLA leave and her employer gave the employee an extension to submit her doctor’s certification. The employer then failed to honor the new deadline and terminated the employee for violating the employer’s attendance policy. The district court in Tennessee denied the motion for summary judgment filed by the employer and held that, by doing so, the employer may have violated the employee’s rights under the FMLA. As a result, the employee’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims are being allowed to go to trial.
Failure to honor extension
According to Shoemaker’s lawsuit, she tried to enter the workplace after returning from FMLA leave but her I.D. card would not work. After contacting Human Resources, she was told that she had exceeded the attendance limits under company policy. Shoemaker responded that her absences were covered under the FMLA. She was then instructed to “get things fixed by Monday [June 18].” Indeed, the employee already had a certified letter sent to her by her employer, imposing the same deadline.
The employee immediately requested an amended FMLA medical certification, which she submitted to her employer before the June 18 deadline. Regardless, Human Resources refused to approve one of those certified absences as FMLA leave. The only reason given for denying coverage for that absence was because the certification was not received within the normal 30-day time period.
Claims of FMLA interference and retaliation
Shoemaker filed a lawsuit claiming that, in refusing to honor the deadline it gave her, Conagra Foods interfered with her right to FMLA leave and retaliated against her for taking said leave. Her employer asserted that she misunderstood the deadline by assuming it applied to absences outside the normal deadline. However, the trial court decided that Shoemaker’s interpretation of the statement from Human Resources was clearly a reasonable one. Ultimately, the jury would need to decide whether the deadline for submitting the FMLA certification paperwork was meant to apply to her April absence too. If they do, then the company’s failure to honor its own extended deadline could be considered interference with her FMLA rights and possibly retaliation for exercising those rights.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation based on the FMLA or any other federal employment protections, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.