Dragging your feet in responses to employees can land you in significant “hot water”. A New York federal court found an HR manager personally responsible for how an employee was dealt with in an FMLA case.
Lack of response
Initially in this case the HR manager did provide the employee with FMLA instructions for dealing with an absence due to an ill child. However, as the employee’s issues “snowballed” with yet another sick child and the employee’s need for intermittent leave the HR manager did not respond appropriately. In fact the court said, according to M. Christine Carty of Schnader Attorneys at Law :
Although the employee left many voicemail and email messages to find out when she could return to work, the CIA did not respond to her inquiry for 10 days. At that time the human resources director wrote to the employee and advised her vaguely that her FMLA paperwork failed to justify her absence and had to be updated to fix that deficiency. That letter set a deadline for submitting the updated documents that was incorrect under the FMLA. Following the letter from the human resources director, the employee and the human resources director embarked on a frustrating series of email and telephone communications in which the human resources director (i) never provided forms or a clear expression of what would satisfy the CIA as justification for the FMLA leaves, (ii) rejected a doctor’s representation that the FMLA leave was necessary, (iii) cut off communication between the employee and her manager, and (iv) insisted on a personal meeting with the employee, who was still on leave, but avoided setting a date and time for the meeting in an exchange of emails over several days that the Court described as “excruciating.” Eventually, the human resources director and the employee’s manager terminated the plaintiff’s employment for “job abandonment.”
That is a pretty poor record on the part of HR and as a result the Court found that the HR manager and the employee’s manager could both be liable for costs and damages and they referred this back to the lower court to determine that.
Many companies carry Employment Practices Liability Insurance in order to protect officers and managers from this type of occurrence. However, EPLI only works if the managers act in a non-willful way and acted in good faith. The court in this case indicated that such a standard did not apply in this situation. According to Carty “Managers can avoid liability by strictly following the FMLA notice requirements and supplying proper forms, by providing accurate and timely information to the employees and by clearly stating what is needed to satisfy the request for leave.”
Although this case was determined in the Second Circuit, which covers New York and Connecticut, other Federal circuit courts have made similar decisions. It is likely that in future cases, regardless of location, courts may make similar decisions. Try not to be one of those cases.