It is well known that the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is a nuanced law with many technical steps and requirements within the governing regulations. One of the most complex issues is knowing when an absence may be or is FMLA-qualifying, and how to respond. This is a difficult determination for one who has worked with the FMLA and received training on the issue. It is an even more perplexing determination for many managers who have no idea that an employee may be eligible for FMLA leave based on a phone call notifying the company of an absence—whether that absence is for a few or several days.
The case of Boadi v. Center of Human Development, Inc. and Candy Pennington illustrates the consequences of a manager’s failure to properly respond to a potentially FMLA-qualifying event, and demonstrates the importance of training a company’s front-line managers on how to handle these situations.
Grace Boadi worked for the Center of Human Development (“CHD”) as a direct care worker, and Cynthia Pennington was in her chain of supervision. During the seven day period beginning Sunday, April 14, 2017, Ms. Boadi was scheduled to work on the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st.
On Monday of that week, when she was not scheduled to work, Ms. Boadi suffered mental issues that required hospitalization. She was taken to the hospital by her son, James Takyi. Mr. Takyi called CHD and spoke to a co-worker about his mother’s condition, and the co-worker advised Mr. Takyi to contact the on-call supervisor, which Takyi did. Ms. Pennington was notified, and she returned Mr. Takyi’s phone call on the next day—April 16, 2013. Ms. Pennington and Mr. Takyi discussed Ms. Boadi’s condition and that a return to work date was uncertain.
Mr. Takyi called again on April 17th and spoke to his mother’s direct supervisor, who then directed him to Human Resources regarding short-term disability benefits. Mr. Takyi spoke to someone in Human Resources, who had limited training on the FMLA, to discuss short-term disability benefits. The Human Resources representative sent Mr. Takyi information regarding short-term disability benefits and FMLA leave, but did not explain the FMLA to Mr. Takyi. This packet of information would later be used to confirm that CHD was aware that Ms. Boadi was on medical leave.
Mr. Takyi called again on April 18th and spoke with Ms. Pennington, who supposedly became angry and asked if Ms. Boadi could speak. Mr. Takyi stated “yes,” but did not explain that Ms. Boadi’s speech was unintelligible. An expert later testified that Ms. Boadi was not capable at that time of communicating or understanding and following the company’s procedures.
Ms. Pennington notified the VP of Human Resources of Ms. Boadi’s hospitalization. During this same time, Mr. Takyi attempted to obtain a medical certification from the hospital where Ms. Boadi was located, but the hospital directed him to his mother’s primary care provider.
Ms. Pennington told the VP of Human Resources that Ms. Boadi had violated the no-call no-show policy on April 19th, 20th, and 21st because she did not call in personally. Ms. Pennington then drafted a termination letter for a higher level manager to sign but did not advise this manager of Ms. Boadi’s hospitalization. Upon being released from the hospital on April 23rd, Ms. Boadi went to her primary care physician who faxed a medical certification to CHD showing that Ms. Boadi needed leave from April 23, 2014, to May 23, 2014. Ms. Boadi then went to CHD and completed the STD and FMLA paperwork not showing she had been hospitalized.
Ms. Boadi called a day or two later to discuss returning to work but was told that she had been terminated for violating the no-call no-show policy. She then filed a lawsuit against CHD, alleging interference with her rights under the FMLA.
Ultimately, a jury awarded Ms. Boadi $142,041.24, for lost wages and interest. The Court then gave her an equal amount in liquidated damages after determining that CHD had acted in bad faith by interfering with Ms. Boadi’s FMLA rights by terminating her and not allowing her to return to work.
In concluding that CHD had failed to act in good faith, the Court first reviewed the regulations that allow a family member to provide notice of the need for FMLA leave when an employee is unable to provide the notice themselves. Obviously, that occurred multiple times in this case.
CHD may have shown that it acted in good faith by consulting with legal counsel about FMLA eligibility and related issues. However, CHD did not seek any legal guidance during this process. The Court was further persuaded that CHD did not act in good faith because CHD could not show that it made any effort to investigate whether Ms. Boadi had complied with the call-in policy or that her son’s phone call was adequate notice under the FMLA. In the end, the Court ruled that all of these actions by CHD established a lack of good faith in its efforts to comply with the FMLA. As a result, not only was CHD found liable for interference with Ms. Boadi’s FMLA and awarded back-pay, but CHD was also liable for additional amounts as liquidated damages.
Boadi presents a clear picture of how often front-line managers are forced to deal with situations where an employee’s FMLA rights may be affected. Without guidance from the employer, these supervisors will often fail to recognize a situation where FMLA rights are implicated. Moreover, although not discussed in this specific case, it is just as important that employers have termination decisions reviewed by more than one decision-maker to ensure that all applicable regulations, laws and guidelines are being complied with prior to an employee be discharged. If an employer feels that its managers and supervisors will not take the training seriously, the employer may want to explain that each could be sued individually for FMLA violations, which is what happened here with Ms. Pennington.
The key point to take away from this case is that training and conveyance of knowledge regarding the FMLA must be given to more individuals who may make decisions that could impact an employee’s FMLA rights and benefits.