The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles employees of covered employers who have been employed for 12 months and who have 1,250 hours of service to up to 12 (and in some cases 26) weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. On May 19, 2009, the Indiana Supreme Court held that employees who work in more than one position for the same employer are entitled to combine their hours worked in each position for purposes of meeting the 1,250-hour eligibility threshold. Similarly, employees are typically entitled to be restored to each of the same positions they held prior to their FMLA leave upon their return to work.
In Gary Community School Corporation v. Tom Powell, the plaintiff took seven weeks of FMLA leave during the summer of 2001. In the 12 months before his leave, the plaintiff served more than 1,250 hours in his capacity as a math teacher and fewer than 1,250 hours as the school's head football coach. When he returned to his teaching position, he learned the school had fired him from his head football coaching job. He complained to the principal and spoke to a reporter at a local newspaper. In 2002 and 2003, he was again denied the coaching position. He ultimately brought suit against the school, claiming that it had violated the FMLA by failing to restore him as coach and retaliating against him for taking FMLA leave by rejecting his subsequent bids for the coaching position.
An Issue of First Impression
An Indiana trial court ruled that the plaintiff was an eligible employee under the FMLA for purposes of both his teaching and coaching positions. The Indiana Court of Appeals reached a different result, concluding that both parties treated the jobs as entirely separate and independent of one another, and, consequently, the jobs were separate for the purposes of FMLA coverage.
The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, relying on the fact that the Department of Labor's FMLA regulations defining "employer" and "employee" and setting forth eligibility criteria make no distinction between the types of work a given employee may perform for a given employer. The court also emphasized the legislative history of the FMLA, specifically legislative intent that the "hours of service" requirement be "broadly construed." In addition, the court relied on regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (which also apply to the FMLA) which require employers to aggregate all hours worked by an employee, regardless of whether they were worked in different job assignments, to determine hours worked for purposes of computing overtime.
The First Time Indiana's Supreme Court Has Ruled on FMLA Issue
The Supreme Court's ruling marks the first time it has decided a case under the FMLA. Even though state and federal courts share jurisdiction of FMLA claims, the vast majority of FMLA case law comes from the federal court system either because plaintiffs initially file there or because defendants remove FMLA cases from state to federal court. In addition, Indiana Supreme Court holdings are not binding on federal courts, even those that sit in Indiana, so it is possible that the Powell holding will have little impact in other cases. However, the opinion is clear and well-reasoned, and the plaintiff's attorneys will very likely cite it as persuasive authority in any case where a dual- or multi-role employee's FMLA eligibility is at issue.