Third Circuit Holds That Hours Worked At Home Count Towards the 1,250-Hour Eligibility Threshold If the Employer Had Actual or Constructive Notice of the Hours Worked

Today, in Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Co., the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff's FMLA interference and retaliation claims, holding that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the defendant miscalculated the plaintiff's hours worked when it determined that she did not meet the 1,250-hour threshold. 

To be eligible for leave under the FMLA, an employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12-month period.  In Erdman, the plaintiff initially requested to use her vacation time in August to prepare her child with Down Syndrome for school.  When her request was denied, she requested FMLA leave for the period of July 7 to August 29.  Approximately one month after she requested leave, but before she took any leave time, she was terminated after she used profanity during a telephone conversation that was monitored for quality control purposes.  The plaintiff alleged that the employer's motives for terminating her were pretextual, and that she was actually fired for requesting FMLA leave. 

The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the FMLA claims on the grounds that the plaintiff had not met the 1,250-hour threshold to be eligible for leave under the FMLA.  In calculating the plaintiff's hours worked during the previous 12-month period, the district court declined to include certain hours that the plaintiff worked at home after the employer had advised her to simply "put in the hours that . . . you're supposed to put in and nothing more than that," and found that the employer could not have had constructive notice of those hours.  

Under the FMLA, all work that "the employer knows or has reason to believe . . . is being performed" counts toward the 1,250-hour threshold requirement.  See 29 C.F.R. Section 785.12.  Hours worked off-site or beyond an employee's schedule count if the employer "knows or has reason to believe that an employee is continuing to work extra hours."  See 29 C.F.R. Section 785.11.  Actual knowledge is not required; constructive knowledge will suffice. 

In Erdman, the Third Circuit found that a reasonable jury could conclude that, although the employer had communicated to the plaintiff that she would not be paid for any hours worked at home, she understood that she could continue to accrue "comp" time by working extra hours.  Moreover, the court concluded that her employer had actual and/or constructive notice that she was continuing to work from home until it explicitly prohibited her from working more than her regularly scheduled hours on February 10,2003.  Counting all of the hours that the plaintiff worked at home prior to February 10, 2003, the Third Circuit found that she had accumulated 1,282.25 total hours during the prior 12-month period. 

The Third Circuit also considered the defendant's argument that, because the plaintiff had never taken FMLA leave, she could not pursue a retaliation claim.  The defendant relied, in part, on the language of the statute, which provides that employers are prohibited from "discriminating against employees or prospective employees who have used FMLA leave."  See 29 C.F.R. Section 825.220(c) (emphasis added).  The Third Circuit held that there is no requirement that the employee "use" FMLA leave in order to bring a claim of retaliation; the employee need only have invoked his or her FMLA rights.  As such, the Third Circuit held that firing an employee for a valid request for FMLA leave may constitute interference with the employee's FMLA rights as well as retaliation against the employee. 

The Erdman decision is instructive for several reasons.  First, it puts employers on notice that, if they have actual or constructive notice that an employee is working from home or otherwise putting in extra hours, those hours must be included for purposes of calculating the employee's eligibility for FMLA leave.  Broken down by week, an employee needs to work only approximately 24 hours per week to meet the 1,250-hour threshold.  If the calculation is close, prudent employers will err on the side of assuming that the employee is eligible for FMLA leave.  Second, the decision makes it clear that an employee need not use FMLA leave in order to preserve a retaliation claim; the employee need only request FMLA leave or otherwise invoke his or her FMLA rights in order to bring a retaliation claim.  Employers need to be aware of the significant risk that they will be faced with a retaliation claim if they terminate or otherwise take some adverse employment action against an employee who has invoked his or her FMLA rights, and there is some causal connection between the two events. 

 

 

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