Why it matters: An employer managed to score a victory in a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) suit despite the court’s finding that the company technically violated the statute. Although the employer failed to provide a proper Notice of Eligibility or Designation Notice as required by the FMLA, the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the employee suffered no harm. Because the employee did not provide evidence that he would have structured his leave differently or would have been medically ready to return to work, the appellate panel ruled that the employer’s violations were irrelevant as “nothing was lost, nor was any harm suffered.” While the employer managed to get the case dismissed, the decision provides a lesson for employers: avoid litigating an FMLA case to the federal appellate level and provide employees with the required notices under the statute.

Detailed Discussion

Scott Bellone was a fourth-grade teacher at a Massachusetts elementary school. On March 10, 2010, he informed the school district that he needed to take a two-week leave of absence for medical reasons. He provided the district with a note from his physician; a second note followed, stating he would be unable to work until April 15.

On March 24, the district sent Bellone a letter and certification form that he was instructed to complete and return. This communication was later characterized by the district as an FMLA Notice of Eligibility. When Bellone’s doctor returned the form, it stated that he would be unable to perform the job function of “teach[ing] children” for an “uncertain” period of time. For the rest of the school year – which ended on June 21 – the doctor continued to communicate to the district that Bellone was unable to work.

The district sent Bellone a letter on July 9, informing him that he had been approved for FMLA leave, which the district had designated as lasting from March 4 through June 4 (although untimely, the employer called the letter an FMLA Designation Notice). Having exhausted his statutory 12 weeks, the school asked if Bellone would be medically able to return to work the next school year. Bellone provided a letter dated August 30 from his doctor, who stated that he could “see no psychological reasons why [Bellone] should not return to work at the beginning of the new academic year.”

Bellone was given a new teaching assignment. Believing it to be a demotion, he did not report to work. After being officially terminated, Bellone sued, alleging, among other claims, that the district interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to provide proper and timely eligibility and designation notices as required by the statute.

Both of the notices were untimely, the First Circuit said, as well as inadequate.

But affirming summary judgment for the employer, the federal appellate panel said Bellone failed to establish that he suffered any harm as a result of the statutory violations. Although he contended that he would have structured his leave differently in order to preserve some of his FMLA entitlement had the district provided the proper notice, the court disagreed.

“Bellone has demonstrated no genuine dispute of material fact that would support a finding that he suffered harm as a result of the School District’s late and inadequate notices,” the panel wrote. Not until August 30 did the school receive notice that Bellone was fit to return to work. Therefore, Bellone’s unsupported statements in his amended complaint that he would have preserved some of his FMLA leave by modifying his medical treatment, requesting a workplace accommodation or intermittent leave, or returning to work sooner – in contradiction of the notes from his doctor – were insufficient, the court held.

To read the decision in Bellone v. Southwick-Tolland Regional School District, click here.