Both employer and employee benefit from knowing about changes made to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Prior to 1993, US employees lived in fear that one major medical issue could end their careers. No protection existed to prevent workers from being carelessly discarded by employers whose only concern was the bottom line. Fortunately, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act changed the game, protecting employees who meet any of the following criteria for as long as 12 weeks per year:

The birth of a son or daughter of the employee and in order to care for such son or daughter. The placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care. A spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition and needs care. A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to meet position standards.

For obvious reasons, business owners, managers and human-resources professionals benefit from not only understanding the FMLA, but also keeping abreast of any court rulings that might set new precedents in its administration. Like much of US law, the FMLA is a living document that evolves over times as courts reach new understandings of its application.

Following are three recent federal FMLA judgements that might impact your business:

1. Carrel v. MedPro Group, Inc.

Employers now face an increased risk of FMLA class-action suits. The US District Court of Northern Indiana found that FMLA-related class action suits can be pursued as opt-out—as opposed to opt-in—because the law’s language doesn’t specifically require that class members consent to join the action. The decision will make class actions more attractive to both plaintiffs and their attorneys, and likely lead to more employers facing such litigation in the future.

 2. Valdivia v. Township High School District 214

In a case dealing with notification and FMLA access, the US District Court of Northern Illinois re-enforced prior opinions that employers must make every effort to notify employees of their rights to protected medical leave. In the case, a secretary claimed not only a hostile work environment, but her employer’s blatant indifference to the medical issues the environment was causing her.

According to the court, FMLA notice requirements are “not demanding,” and employers are responsible for proactively informing distressed employees of their rights, even if the employee may not be aware of the health condition.

“Clear abnormalities in the employee’s behavior may constitute constructive notice of a serious health condition,” the court stated.

3. Egan v. Delaware River Port Authority

In a precedential decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that an employee exercising leave under the FMLA need not prove retaliation with direct evidence. After the plaintiff took an approved FMLA leave, the Delaware Port Authority notified him that his position was eliminated. When Egan brought suit against his former employer, the defendant argued that the termination was not related to the employee’s medical leave.

A lower court reached a decision in favor of the defendant, but on appeal the Third Circuit found that a "in enacting the FMLA, Congress chose to ensure that those who need to address serious health issues may do so without interference. The regulation precludes an employer from considering the use of such leave as a negative factor in an employment decision."

Employers should be aware of this and similar court decisions because even the appearance of impropriety could result in retaliation judgements.

Have you run into issues administering FMLA? Researching court precedents could very well help you determine the right course of action and avoid costly legal contests.

James Owen is a criminal defense attorney at Columbus' Koenig and Long, LLC. Mr. Owen has been practicing law in Columbus for nearly 40 years. He has experience with complex criminal law cases such as murder wrongful imprisonment cases.