Equitable Estoppel and the FMLA

September 17, 2010

By: Caroline M. Westover

A recent decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit raises an interesting issue: can an employer be held liable for interference with FMLA rights if it discharges an employee after giving the employee reason to believe FMLA leave has been approved -- even if the employee is not in fact entitled to FMLA leave? In Murphy v. FedEx National LTL, Inc., the Court held that an employer could be liable, if the employee reasonably believes she has been granted FMLA leave and if she has put her employer on notice that she may need FMLA leave.

The following facts are taken from the Court’s opinion. Susan Murphy and her husband worked as truck drivers for FedEx. Ms. Murphy requested FMLA leave to care for her hospitalized husband, which was approved on August 31, 2006. On September 7, 2006, her husband died. Ms. Murphy called to notify her supervisor and to inquire about specific employee and bereavement-related benefits. Her supervisor offered to obtain the information for her because she was upset. Ms. Murphy remained out of work for three days on bereavement leave provided by FedEx.

Ms. Murphy’s supervisor spoke with her again on September 11, 2006, to inform her that her FMLA leave had expired on September 7. He also asked Ms. Murphy when she would return to work. She replied that she needed thirty days to “take care of things.” The supervisor then stated, “okay, cool, not a problem, I’ll let HR know.” The two had no further discussions regarding her leave request, nor did Ms. Murphy contact FedEx to seek any additional approval regarding the leave of absence. At trial, Ms. Murphy testified that following her husband’s death, she experienced difficulty sleeping and functioning, and she cried frequently. She also acknowledged that she did not notify FedEx that she was experiencing these symptoms. On September 12, her supervisor contacted the Human Resources Department and relayed Ms. Murphy’s request for a 30-day leave of absence to “put her affairs in order.” FedEx denied the leave request, and on September 15, the supervisor contacted Ms. Murphy to notify her that FedEx was terminating her employment. Ms. Murphy subsequently sued FedEx, claiming that FedEx interfered with her FMLA rights by denying her leave request and ending the employment relationship.

One of Murphy’s legal theories was equitable estoppel; that FedEx interfered with Murphy’s FMLA rights by representing that it had granted her leave, inducing her reasonable reliance on that representation and later terminating her. On that claim, the District Court rejected FedEx’s proposed jury instruction that would have required the jury to find, among other things, that Murphy had a serious health condition and had put FedEx on notice that she potentially had such a condition. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Murphy on the equitable estoppel claim.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found that the District Court erred when it gave the jury instructions on the equitable estoppel claim. Specifically, the Court of Appeals found that, while an employee need not actually have a serious health condition to prevail on an estoppel theory, the employee still bears the responsibility of adhering to the FMLA’s notice requirements, including providing the employer with information sufficient to indicate the requested leave may be FMLA protected. Simply stated: “[b]efore an employee can claim FMLA protection, whether through estoppel, waiver, or otherwise, the employee must put the statute in play – she must notify her employer that she may need FMLA leave… .”

Finally, the Court noted that on retrial, Murphy has to prove that she “reasonably believed,” FedEx approved her request for thirty days as FMLA leave, rather than “some other type of leave.” The Court noted that while vague representations by the employer are not sufficient, the employer does not have to mention the FMLA to create a reasonable belief. Consequently, employers should be aware that even simple affirmations of a leave request (i.e., okay, cool, not a problem, etc.) may be sufficient to support a claim of equitable estoppel.