In Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, 848 F.3d 102 (2d Cir. 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held (1) that an employee met the eligibility requirements for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to care for a seriously ill grandfather, even though the employee did not mention the in loco parentis nature of his relationship with the grandfather, and (2) that the employer had an obligation to specify any additional information it needed to determine whether the employee was entitled to FMLA leave.

In Coutard, Frantz Coutard requested leave under the FMLA to care for his grandfather, Jean Manesson Dumond. Dumond had raised Coutard as his son since before Coutard was four years old until he was approximately 14 years old. In January 2013, Dumond was 82 years old and suffered from a number of chronic medical conditions. One evening that month, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, diagnosed with bronchitis, and discharged the next day. Coutard believed Dumond was seriously ill and should not be left unattended. Coutard sought FMLA leave to take care of Dumond. When asking for leave, Coutard did not notify his employer, Municipal Credit Union (“MCU”), that Dumond raised him as his father; he merely asked MCU if he could take FMLA leave for his grandfather. MCU denied Coutard FMLA leave because the statute does not apply to grandparents and terminated Coutard’s employment when he took off from work to care for Dumond. Coutard sued MCU under the FMLA, alleging that MCU interfered with and violated his right to take leave under the FMLA. The district court granted MCU summary judgment, even though the district court found that Dumond “acted in all respects as [Coutard’s] father – feeding him, clothing him, paying for his education, taking him to school, providing emotional and social support.” Coutard appealed.

The Second Circuit began its analysis by covering the eligibility requirements for leave under the FMLA and the notification requirements for eligible employees under the statute. With respect to the notification requirements, the Second Circuit noted that an eligible employee must give notice to his/her employer of his/her intent to take FMLA leave, but the court has not previously considered what constitutes sufficient notice under the statute. When examining the applicable regulations regarding the content of the notice an employee must give to his/her employer, the court noted that 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b) requires an employee to “provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request” and the “employer will be expected to obtain any additional required information through informal means.” The court also examined the type of notification required of the employer to give to employees. In this regard, the regulations require a covered employer to post a notice on its premises and provide each employee notice by including notice in employee handbooks or other written guidance that explains the employees’ benefits and rights to leave.

The Second Circuit examined a number of other regulations as well, and ultimately concluded that the district court incorrectly imposed a greater obligation on Coutard than the FMLA requires when giving notice to an employer of the need for leave. In this regard, the Second Circuit concluded that the FMLA does not require an employee “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 further conclude that, “in the absence of a request for additional information [from the employer], an employee has provided sufficient notice to his employer if that notice indicates reasonably that the FMLA may apply.” In reaching this conclusion, the court focused on the language in Section 825.303 that requires an employee only give his/her employer sufficient information to reasonably determine whether the FMLA “may” apply. The court proceeded to find that “[t]here can be no serious question that an employee’s request for leave to care for his seriously ill grandfather seeks leave that ‘may’ qualify for FMLA protection.” In response to MCU’s argument that it should not be required to inquire into the “unique” relationship between Coutard and his grandfather, the court determined that “a grandparent raising a child in loco parentis is hardly unique.” The court further supported its conclusion by noting that the FMLA expressly defines parent to include “an individual who stood in loco parentis to an employee when the employee” was “under 18 years of age.” The court explained that this broad language was included in the statute 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’s decision in Coutard is significant in that it expressly places an obligation on companies to delve further into facts and circumstances regarding potential eligibility under the FMLA when it is not apparent based on the facts presented that an employee is indeed eligible for FMLA leave. Companies, particularly in jurisdictions covered by the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, and Vermont), should train their human resource departments and other employees who handle FMLA requests to understand how to respond to inquiries for leave and when it is appropriate to request additional information regarding eligibility for leave.