On June 24, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that an employee did not forfeit her right to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to care for her seriously ill adult daughter by failing to provide her employer with an anticipated date of return.  Gienapp v. Harbor Crest, Case No. 14-1053 (7th Cir. Jun. 24, 2014).  In an opinion authored by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, the appellate court reversed an Illinois federal court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer regarding a former employer’s claim that she was not reinstated in violation of the FMLA.

The employer, Harbor Crest, is a non-profit residential nursing care facility.  In January 2011, one of Harbor Crest’s employees, Suzan Gienapp, informed her management that she needed to take time off to care for her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.  Harbor Crest granted her FMLA leave; however, while periodically contacting her employer in accordance with company policy, Gienapp failed to identify in her leave paperwork  or at any time thereafter when she expected to return to work.  Meanwhile, her daughter’s physician informed Harbor Crest that while the daughter’s recovery was uncertain, any recovery would require assistance through at least July 2011.  Based upon this information, Harbor Crest assumed that Gienapp would not return by the end of her twelve weeks of FMLA leave and hired a replacement.  When Gienapp in fact returned at the end of twelve weeks, she was informed that she no longer had a job.  She then sued Harbor Crest alleging violation of the FMLA; however, the trial court granted summary judgment in Harbor Crest’s favor, holding that Gienapp had forfeited her right to reinstatement under the FMLA because she did not tell Harbor Crest how much leave she would take.

The Seventh Circuit, in reversing the trial court, found that because the status of Gienapp’s daughter was changeable, Gienapp’s leave was to be considered “unforeseeable” under the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) regulations.  As a result, Gienapp was not required to tell Harbor Crest how much leave she needed.  In addition, the court rejected Harbor Crest’s argument that Gienapp was not entitled to FMLA leave to care for her daughter because the daughter was emancipated, an adult, and married.  Instead, the court found that because the daughter was incapable of self-care due to a physical disability (i.e., cancer), she fit within the definition of “daughter” under the FMLA, and, thus, Gienapp was allowed to take leave to help care for her.  Lastly, the court rejected Harbor Crest’s argument that Gienapp’s leave did not qualify under the FMLA because she was caring for her grandchildren.  The court found instead that Gienapp cared for both her daughter and her daughter’s children during the leave.  The court concluded that Gienapp actually was caring for her daughter by caring for the daughter’s children since she was relieving her of the need to care for them.  Based upon these findings, the Seventh Circuit reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Harbor Crest and directed that trial court enter summary judgment in favor of Gienapp.

The Gienapp decision illustrates the need for employers to ensure that they understand the intricacies of the FMLA and the DOL’s regulations interpreting the statute, and that they comply with the law and regulations when administering FMLA leave for their employees.  Should an employer have any doubt about the duration of, or the circumstances surrounding, a leave, it should confer with the employee and not (like Harbor Crest) make assumptions that might cause it to violate the law.  The decision also shows the liberal construction that courts employ with respect to the FMLA; thus, employers are advised to err in favor of their employees when administrating leave policies.