Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit taught an employer a hard-to-learn lesson about its FMLA policy. The case is Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission. While the employer wasn’t even required to have an FMLA policy in this instance, it did have one – and it had one that left out a key point about employee eligibility for leave.

While the FMLA provides important protections to workers, it is only applicable to “eligible employees.” Pursuant to the FMLA, an employee is eligible for FMLA benefits when:

  1. He has been employed by a covered employer for 12 months;
  2. He has worked 1,250 hours worked during the 12-month period before his requested leave begins; and
  3. He works at a location where his employer employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of that location.

The “gotcha” for the Road Commission was that it had included among its written policies an FMLA policy that mentioned the first two requirements for eligibility, but not the third. In fact, the Commission didn’t even employ 50 people within a 75 mile radius of Mr. Tilley’s work location. As such, the Commission wouldn’t have been required to provide Mr. Tilley with FMLA leave.

You see, Mr. Tilley was already subject to discipline for failing to complete assignments. After experiencing chest pain, Mr. Tilley decided to take a leave of absence to seek medical treatment. Subsequently, the Commission terminated him because he failed to complete his work assignment because of the leave of absence. Easy to defend, right?

However, Mr. Tilley, an apparently very savvy and thoughtful guy, said that the reason he sought medical treatment for his condition was that he believed he was eligible for FMLA because he met the criteria for eligibility stated in the Commission’s FMLA policy.

The Sixth Circuit found that a reasonable person in Mr. Tilley’s position could fairly have believed that he was protected by the FMLA. Consequently, the court allowed Mr. Tilley’s case to proceed to a jury trial.

The Tilley story should serve as a wake up call to remind employers to work with their attorneys to review and update their employee handbooks and other policies. Don’t let a couple-hundred-dollar fix cost you over $100K in legal fees, litigation costs, and potential damages.