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Wrongful firing suit is FMLA lesson for Broward County employers

Broward County employees have the right to take a leave of absence from their jobs due to events such as childbirth or a serious health condition under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Oftentimes, both employers and employees in South Florida are confused about FMLA because Florida state law does not require private employers to provide leave to their employees.

However, Florida employees who qualify for FMLA--generally, those who have worked at least 12 months for an employer with 50 or more employees--may take up to may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to deal with an eligible health condition, or that of an immediate family member. A federal appeals court recently ruled that an employer wrongfully fired a worker for missing work, due to misunderstanding his FMLA benefits.

The Cincinnati case involved a 36-year-old employee who requested to take FMLA leave from April 27 to June 27, 2005, for a non-work related shoulder injury. The employer approved the leave, but the employee's doctor ended up clearing the employee to return to work earlier than scheduled, on June 13.

The employee did not return early, because he still had pain, and the employer called him on June 14 to ask him why he was not back at work. The worker explained, and he had a note from his doctor which requested that the leave be extended again until June 18. The man returned to work June 17 with the note, and the company fired him.

The company said it counted June 13 to June 17 as unexcused absences

However, the federal appeals court has now ruled that the employer was wrong in firing the worker, because it had not properly explained its FMLA policies.

The only written information that the company provided to the employee said that the leave would expire on June 27. Additionally, the company did not even alert the employee that the return-to-work date was changed until he had already missed one day of work.

The court ordered the company to pay the employee double damages under FMLA. This was more than $312,000.

The court further said that the case should be a lesson to all employers, because employers need to inform their staff in writing of how they are calculating FMLA leave. There are two different ways to count the FMLA year, and employers also may have their own policies that fall within the FMLA law, but employees cannot be expected to follow such policies if they are not made aware of them.

Source: Business Insurance, "Employer did not communicate FMLA police, can't fire worker: Appeals Court," Judy Greenwald, Jan. 24, 2012

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