Denial of unemployment benefits doesn’t bar an FMLA claim

Recent court case provides insight

Posted September 2, 2016

Emily, the company’s Human Resources (HR) director, was shocked when she learned that Devon, a long-time employee, had left so many of his TPS reports unfinished, as they had strict deadlines — most of which had passed. Failure to meet the deadlines risked exposing the company to liability from a government agency. The unfinished reports were found when Devon took time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and others took over his duties. After the discovery, his office was locked down, pending an investigation. Eventually, it was decided that Devon would be terminated due to his conduct and poor job performance.

Devon went on to file for unemployment, but the benefits were denied. Subsequently, he sued for FMLA interference and retaliation, arguing that he was required to work during leave, and that his on-call pay was suspended. Since the unemployment office deemed Devon ineligible for unemployment benefits because of his gross misconduct, Emily wondered if he could even pursue an FMLA claim. Since he was terminated for a legitimate reason, wouldn’t his FMLA claim fail?

This question was topic of a recent court case.

When it came time for the unemployment hearing, the employee had already been employed elsewhere, so she did not attend the hearing, and the employer simply called in to the hearing. When the employer tried, in the FMLA claim, to argue that the FMLA issue was precluded by the unemployment issue, there was no evidence that the unemployment issue was litigated, and that it was necessary to the administrative decision. These two issues (among others) needed to be met in order to bar the FMLA claim.

The FMLA does not protect an employee who would have otherwise been terminated, as long as the employer can demonstrate that it would have terminated the employee had she not been on FMLA leave, and this was part of the employer’s argument. The reason (gross misconduct) was the same for both the unemployment issue and the FMLA issue.

The employee, on the other hand, argued that the unemployment hearing decision was effectively a default, therefore, the FMLA issue was not litigated, nor was it necessary for the unemployment decision. Only unsworn statements were involved, as the employer did not show up to the hearing, and the former employee had little interest in litigating, since she had already found new employment.

Therefore, an employee in a situation similar to Devon’s could file an FMLA claim, even after being denied unemployment benefits because of gross misconduct. In this situation, the unemployment gross misconduct finding did not automatically get applied to the FMLA claim. Had the employer gone to the unemployment hearing in person, and provided sworn statements, the outcome could have been different.

Simmons v. Indian Rivers Mental Health Center, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, 15-11658, 6/13/16.

This article was written by Darlene Clabault of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Consulting ServicesJ. J. Keller's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Consulting Services can help your company ensure compliance with FMLA requirements and minimize the law’s burden to your organization.


J. J. Keller's FREE HRClicks™ email newsletter brings quick-read human resources-related news right to your email inbox.

Sign up to receive HRClicks™.