Why it matters

An employer should have made more of an effort to determine if an employee was eligible for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held while reversing summary judgment in the employer's favor. When he requested leave to care for his seriously ill grandfather, Frantz Coutard alleged that Municipal Credit Union told him categorically that the statute did not cover leave to care for grandparents. Coutard sued for interference with his FMLA rights, arguing that his grandfather had, in loco parentis, raised him as a child, meaning that the employee should have been eligible to take leave to care for him. A district court sided with the employer, reasoning that, although care for a person with whom an employee had an in loco parentis relationship would have been covered by the FMLA, Coutard failed to inform his employer of that status. The Circuit Court reversed, noting that the employer denied the request categorically without requesting additional information. Instead, the employer "had an obligation to specify any additional information that it needed to determine whether plaintiff was entitled to such leave," the Court wrote.

Detailed discussion

An employee of the Municipal Credit Union (MCU), Frantz Coutard, lived with his grandfather, Jean Manesson Dumond. After Coutard's father died when he was three years old, Dumond raised him as his son until Coutard was about 14. Dumond, who suffered a stroke in 2011, was 82 years old and suffered from a number of chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma, prostate cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease.

When Dumond was diagnosed with bronchitis in January 2013, Coutard decided to stay home and care for him until he was able to secure the assistance of a home health aide. Coutard sought Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave from MCU but his employer denied the leave, allegedly informing Coutard that the statute does not apply to grandparents. When Coutard remained at home to care for Dumond, MCU terminated his employment.

Coutard filed suit, alleging interference with his FMLA rights. MCU moved for summary judgment, arguing that, although the statute provides that an eligible employee may be entitled to leave to care for a person with whom he had an in loco parentis relationship as a child, Coutard failed to explain the circumstances. A district court granted the employer's motion to dismiss the case.

Coutard appealed, asserting that his failure to mention the nature of the relationship with his grandfather was not dispositive. Given that the company did not inform him that an in loco parentis relationship could entitle him to FMLA leave and did not inquire whether Coutard had such a relationship with his grandfather—instead categorically responding that Coutard was not entitled to leave to care for a grandparent—the employer erred, he argued.

Reversing summary judgment for MCU, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed. "We hold that because plaintiff met the eligibility requirements for FMLA leave and requested that leave expressly to care for his seriously ill grandfather, defendant as an employer covered by the FMLA had an obligation to specify any additional information that it needed in order to determine whether plaintiff was entitled to such leave," the unanimous panel wrote.

MCU was required to make further inquiry of Coutard before denying his request for FMLA leave, the Court held. The statute permits leave to care for a "parent," defined to include "an individual who stood in loco parentis to an employee when the employee was a son or daughter."

At the time of Coutard's request to take leave, the relevant FMLA regulations stated: "When an employee seeks leave for the first time for a FMLA-qualifying reason, the employee need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA … The employer will be expected to obtain any additional required information through informal means."

"In light of these regulations, we conclude that the obligation of an employee to give notice of his need for FMLA leave is not the obligation, imposed by the district court on Coutard, to provide the employer with all of the necessary details to permit a definitive determination of the FMLA's applicability at or before the time of the request," the Court wrote. "Rather, in the absence of a request for additional information, an employee has provided sufficient notice to his employer if that notice indicates reasonably that the FMLA may apply."

Coutard was not required to provide MCU with all the information it needed to determine with certainty that his requested leave was within the FMLA at the time of his request, the Court concluded. Instead, Coutard was required initially "only to provide sufficient information to indicate that the FMLA 'may' apply."

Using this standard, the Second Circuit found "no serious question that an employee's request for leave to care for his seriously ill grandfather … 'may' qualify for FMLA protection. Although MCU argues that it was not required to inquire as to whether Coutard had a '[u]nique' relationship with his grandfather, a grandparent's raising of a child in loco parentis is hardly unique," the Court said.

The very reason Congress included individuals who stood in loco parentis to employees "was to 'reflect the reality that many children in the United States today do not live in traditional 'nuclear' families with their biological father and mother,' and are increasingly raised by others including 'their grandparents,'" the Court explained.

It was "reasonable for MCU to understand that Coutard's request for leave in order to take care of his seriously ill grandfather might come within the FMLA," the Court concluded, reversing summary judgment in the employer's favor.

To read the decision in Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, click here.