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Supreme Court Confirms That Employees Are Not Entitled To More Than 12 Weeks of Leave Under The FMLA

March 19, 2002

By a vote of 5-4, the United States Supreme Court has struck down a controversial Department of Labor ("DOL") regulation providing that time off from work may not be counted against an employee's 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") until the employer actually notifies the employee in writing that the time off will be designated as FMLA leave. Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, No. 00-6029 (March 19, 2002).

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff, Tracy Ragsdale, took seven months of medical leave while undergoing cancer treatment. Her employer neglected to inform her that this time off from work would count as leave under the FMLA. Ragsdale was unable to return to work at the expiration of the seven months of leave to which she was entitled under the applicable collective bargaining agreement, and she then requested FMLA leave. The employer denied the request on the grounds that she had exhausted her available FMLA leave. Since she was unable to return to work, her employment was terminated and she sued, claiming that she was discharged in violation of the FMLA. Relying on the applicable DOL regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 825.700(a), Ragsdale alleged that, because she was not notified that her 30 weeks of leave would be counted against her FMLA entitlement, she was entitled to an additional 12 weeks of FMLA leave at the time her employment was terminated.

The employer argued that Ragsdale had been permitted to take 30 weeks of leave, and was therefore treated far more generously than the FMLA requires. In granting the employer's motion for summary judgment and dismissing the complaint, the District Court (and later the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals) refused to enforce the regulation in question on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the FMLA itself, which requires only that 12 weeks of leave be given, not that specific notice be given. An appeal to the Supreme Court followed.

The Supreme Court's Rationale

The DOL regulation in question specifically provides that, "[i]f an employee takes paid or unpaid leave and the employer does not designate the leave as FMLA leave, the leave taken does not count against an employee's FMLA entitlement." 29 C.F.R. § 825.700(a). In striking down this regulation, the Court noted that the FMLA itself requires employees claiming a violation of that statute to demonstrate that they were prejudiced by the alleged violation. The regulation at issue in Ragsdale, by contrast, punished employers for failing to provide written notification that time off was being counted as FMLA leave, without regard to whether employees were prejudiced by this failure. Because the regulation automatically imposes a penalty on any employer that fails to provide written notice of FMLA designation -- without regard to whether the employee at issue was actually prejudiced by the employer's failure to provide such written notice -- the Court concluded that the regulation is invalid, and that the employer in Ragsdale was properly granted summary judgment.

Concluding Thoughts

The Supreme Court's decision in Ragsdale unquestionably provides welcome relief to employers that might otherwise have been forced to extend leaves of absence beyond the statutory requirement of 12 weeks per year for failing to meet the notification requirements of the FMLA. However, the Court's decision does not relieve employers of their notification obligations under the statute; thus, employers must continue to notify employees promptly and in writing when their time off from work will be designated as FMLA leave.