The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides that an employee is entitled to leave under certain circumstances, including a serious health condition that makes that individual unable to perform the functions of his or her job. Employers are prohibited from interfering with an eligible employee’s right to take the leave associated with that act. Under the FMLA, an “eligible” employee is one who has been employed for at least 12 months at the company, and who has worked a minimum of 1250 hours during the 12-month period immediately prior to the leave request.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed a situation in which an employee’s working hours fell just below the 1250 hour requirement. In that case, the court found that the 1250 hour hurdle was absolute, and that any lesser number of hours removed the employee from eligibility to assert a claim under the FMLA. Pirant v. U.S. Postal Service, No. 07-1055 (7th Cir. September 4, 2008).

Antoinette Pirant was hired in 1993 by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to work as a mail handler. In the years of her tenure with the USPS, Pirant was regularly disciplined for attendance policy violations. In fact, she was “terminated” four times, and on each of the four occasions was able to convince her supervisors to reduce the termination to a suspension.

In March 2001, Pirant was put on a Last Chance Agreement that specifically stated that further attendance problems would lead to termination, and that this was her “absolute last chance” on the issue. When Pirant subsequently was absent without excuse, she received a notice of termination, and her last day of work was set for October 28. However, on October 26, Pirant convinced her supervisor to extend her final day until December 10.

On October 5, Pirant’s supervisor ordered her to clock out two hours early, based upon an incident of alleged insubordination. Pirant did so, but complained to a USPS Dispute Resolution Specialist (Andrews) that she had been wrongfully accused. She was informed of her right to file a formal grievance on the issue, but did not do so within the allotted time.

On December 6, Pirant was absent from work, and did not provide a medical reason other than she “had not been feeling well.” On December 10, Pirant went to an emergency room and was examined for carpal tunnel syndrome and for arthritis in her knee. She was directed by a doctor not to work from December 10 to December 17.

On January 4, Pirant’s employment was terminated for her violation of the Last Chance Agreement. She filed a federal court complaint, claiming that the USPS violated the FMLA when it terminated her for missing work, since at least one of her absences was related to her “arthritic knee.” In an initial response to that complaint, the USPS admitted that Pirant was qualified for FMLA coverage. However, after checking the official time records, and in light of the two hours that Pirant did not work because of the suspension imposed on October 5, the USPS amended its answer to state that Pirant had worked only 1248.8 hours in the preceding 12 months, and therefore was not eligible for FMLA leave. The district court dismissed Pirant’s claim. The dismissal was upheld on appeal.

The Seventh Circuit held that there was no factual dispute regarding Pirant’s eligibility, since the official payroll records showed a less-than-1250 hour work history – although barely less. Although Pirant argued that she should have been credited with the two hours missed while suspended, she was unable to show that she had appealed that suspension. Therefore, those two hours were not counted toward the 1250 hour minimum. In addition, the court held that Pirant’s time spent “donning and doffing” her uniform was not “work time” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as it was not integral to her job. Therefore, that additional time did not count toward the FMLA’s 1250 work hour requirement.

The USPS’ ability to offer formal documentation of Pirant’s exact work hours was the factor that led to its success in this case. Although the shortfall between Pirant’s hours worked and the hours required for FMLA eligibility was a de minimus amount of time, the court was unwilling to act outside of the statutory mandate of 1250 hours. This case is a clear example to employers of the importance of complete and accurate payroll and work-time records.