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Sixth Circuit Finds Faulty Handbook Bars Employer from Challenging Employee’s Eligibility for FMLA Leave

The Sixth Circuit recently held that a Michigan county agency was barred from arguing that its employee was ineligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), because the employee relied on an inaccurate description of FMLA eligibility requirements contained in the agency’s personnel manual when he commenced the absence that led to his termination.

In Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission, although the employer did not have 50 employees within 75 miles of the plaintiff’s worksite, as is normally required to establish eligibility for FMLA leave, the employer’s failure to specify that requirement in its personnel manual precluded summary judgment on the plaintiff’s equitable estoppel claim, the court said.

The Kalamazoo County Road Commission’s personnel manual stated that “full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months” were “covered under the [FMLA].” Conspicuously missing from the policy, however, was any mention of the FMLA’s additional requirement that an eligible employee must work at a location that is within 75 miles of at least 50 other employees of the same employer.

The plaintiff, Terry Tilley, began working for the Road Commission in 1993.  In 2010, Tilley’s relationship with his supervisor began to deteriorate and in 2010 and 2011 Tilley was disciplined for performance problems on several occasions.  In July of 2011, Tilley’s supervisor issued him a written final warning informing Tilley that if he did not complete three assignments by certain specified dates his employment would be terminated.  Tilley failed to complete the first assignment to his supervisor’s satisfaction and failed to submit the second by the required deadline.  On August 1, 2011, the date the third assignment was due, Tilley left work without submitting the assignment to go to the hospital because he believed he was having a heart attack.  Tilley’s wife subsequently informed the Road Commission that he would not be able to return to work until August 5.

On August 12, the Road Commission sent Tilley a letter formally terminating his employment based on his failure to complete the assignments specified in his final warning.  Tilley filed suit against the Road Commission alleging age discrimination and claims for FMLA interference and retaliation.  The Western District of Michigan granted summary judgment for the Road Commission dismissing all of Tilley’s claims and Tilley appealed.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Tilley’s age discrimination claim, but found the FMLA claims presented a more complex question.  Although the court agreed as a matter of law that Tilley was not eligible for FMLA leave because the Road Commission did not employ 50 employees within 75 miles of Tilley’s worksite, it concluded that Tilley had raised issues of material fact as to whether the Road Commission was equitably estopped from denying his FMLA eligibility.  In other words, Tilley was not technically eligible for FMLA leave, but the Road Commission had forfeited that argument by issuing a policy that suggested he was.

The court expressed skepticism about Tilley’s claim — which was central to his ability to withstand summary judgment — that he would not have chosen to leave for the hospital on his last day at work but for his understanding based on the Road Commission’s personnel manual that he was entitled to FMLA leave: “There are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of Tilley’s assertion that in the face of a suspected heart attack he would have remained at work to complete the then-do assignment,” the court explained. Nevertheless, because the ultimate question of Tilley’s credibility was an issue for the jury, the court reversed summary judgment for the Road Commission and permitted Tilley to proceed with his equitable estoppel claim.

While many employers with fewer than 50 employees in a 75-mile radius are small companies that do not need FMLA policies at all, this case is a reminder to companies with large, geographically dispersed workforces that they likely employ both FMLA-eligible and ineligible employees.  In such instances, accurate human resource policies that take into account the full range of obligations and exceptions are crucial so that these policies do not operate to their detriment.

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George Patterson