When the Family and Medical Leave Act became effective, federal courts split on the ability of employers to obtain effective releases of FMLA liabilities. In 2009, the Department of Labor provided some clarity to this issue, adopting regulations that allowed waiver of retrospective claims, but prohibited enforcement of releases of prospective FMLA rights. This difference was interpreted as permitting release of claims that have already accrued, but not allowing employers to obtain a waiver of future FMLA compliance obligations.
Earlier this month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an employee’s attempt to evade the terms of a release signed with her employer by taking a much broader view of the definition of “prospective.” Paylor v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. involved a former employee who signed a release in return for a severance package. She later sought to join a FMLA lawsuit against her employer, contending that she was terminated in retaliation for requesting FMLA leave. The district court dismissed the claim based on the release.
On appeal, the plaintiff claimed that DOL’s reference to prospective FMLA rights encompassed any unexercised employee FMLA rights. In other words, if the employee never took FMLA leave, he or she could not waive their right to later challenge the employer’s failure to provide leave rights.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected this reading, adopting the more straightforward meaning intended by DOL. Prospective FMLA rights are those that occur in the future. Employers can obtain effective releases of actions prior to the date of the release regardless of whether the employee was ever granted FMLA leave. Otherwise, all employees have unexercised rights to FMLA leave, meaning that most releases of claims would be ineffective.
This case gives employers assurance that standard release language covering claims through the date of the release will encompass any FMLA claims contemplated by the employee.