The Sixth Circuit ruled last Friday in favor of Carl Thom in his claim under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) against American Standard, Inc. Thom v. American Standard, Inc., Case No. 07-00294.pdf Thom’s claim arose out of FMLA leave he took due to a shoulder injury that was not related to work. Thom requested FMLA leave from April 27, 2005, until June 27, 2005. American Standard granted this request in writing. Thom’s shoulder healed more quickly than expected, leading his doctor to approve light duty work beginning May 31 and a full return to work on June 13. After not being permitted to work light duty, Thom did not return to work on June 13. On June 14, American Standard called Thom because he had not returned to work. Thom told American Standard that he was experiencing increased pain and would return to work on June 27. Thom’s doctor wrote a note requesting an extension of Thom’s FMLA leave until July 18, but when Thom took the note to work, he had already been terminated due to his failure to return on June 13.
The district court granted Thom partial summary judgment and awarded a total of over $200,000 in back pay, attorney fees, and costs based on American Standard’s failure to “adequately notify [Thom] of its method for calculating FMLA leave . . .” Depending on which calculation method American Standard used, “rolling” or “calendar,” Thom’s leave would have expired on either June 13 or July 14. Thom was terminated based on a June 13 expiration date calculated using the rolling method. However, the only written document Thom received from American Standard stated that his leave would expire on June 27. The first time he was told by American Standard that his return-to-work date had been changed was the day after he first missed work on June 14. The Sixth Circuit held that “employers should inform their employees in writing of which method they will use to calculate the FMLA leave year.” Thom had not received actual notice of American Standard’s use of the rolling method, and he was entitled to rely on the date he received in writing from the company.
The district court found that American Standard had acted in good faith and with reasonable grounds when discharging Thom, so it denied Thom’s request for liquidated damages. The Sixth Circuit reversed this finding. The Sixth Circuit found that American Standard’s purported defense of its actions – that it was relying on the rolling method to calculate Thom’s FMLA leave date – was pretextual and was never articulated until after Thom was fired. According to the court, American Standard could not have relied upon its rolling method after it departed from this policy in giving Thom his written leave date. Such a defense was not sufficient to overcome the “strong presumption in favor of awarding liquidated damages that are double the amount of any compensatory damages.”