In Bellone v. Southwick-Tolland Regional School District, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts found that an employee's FMLA rights were not violated when his employer sent untimely and inadequate FMLA notices because no harm occurred as a result.
On March 4, 2010, Plaintiff Scott Bellone, a teacher, requested medical leave. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to send employees an FMLA eligibility notice within five days of learning that an employee's leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason, Bellone's employer, Southwick-Tolland Regional School District (Southwick), did not send any type of notice until March 24, 2010. Further, the notice did not contain all of the information that an eligibility notice is required to contain under the FMLA.
On May 20, 2010, after Southwick informed Bellone that his medical information certifying his need for leave was insufficient, Bellone authorized Southwick to communicate directly with his doctor. Under the FMLA, Southwick was supposed to send Bellone a notice designating whether his leave was FMLA-qualifying within five days of obtaining enough information to make that designation. The District Court found that Southwick should have sent the designation notice within five days of May 20, 2010. Southwick, however, did not send the notice until July 9, 2010.
Southwick requires employees to submit fitness-for-duty certifications in order to return from serious health conditions. Bellone did not submit a fitness-for-duty certification until August 31, 2010, which was after his allotment of FMLA leave expired on June 4, 2010. Earlier in August 2010, Southwick hired a replacement for Bellone's position. Once Southwick received Bellone's fitness-for-duty certification, it offered him another position co-teaching and tutoring. Bellone did not report for that position and was subsequently terminated for job abandonment.
Bellone brought a lawsuit alleging that Southwick interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to provide timely and adequate eligibility and designation notices. The District Court, however, dismissed that allegation because Southwick's actions did not harm Bellone. Southwick gave Bellone his full allotment of FMLA leave, and Bellone was not medically able to return until after his allotment expired. Therefore, Bellone was not entitled to reinstatement. The District Court found that Bellone's inability to work, not Southwick's untimely or inadequate notices, caused Bellone's harm.
Bellone also alleged that Southwick's fitness-for-duty requirement interfered with his FMLA rights. However, the District Court also dismissed that claim, finding that Southwick required a fitness-for-duty certification as part of a uniform policy, which is legal under the FMLA.
The Bellone decision is a useful reminder for employers to provide timely and adequate FMLA notices to employees. Although the District Court ruled in Southwick's favor, the result might have been different if Southwick's actions had harmed Bellone, such as if he had prematurely returned to work because Southwick did not provide a timely designation notice. The decision also affirms the legality of fitness-for-duty certifications, as long as they are required as part of a uniform policy.