U.S. Court Rules Worker Eligible for FMLA despite Break in Employment

Article excerpt

A car salesman who had recently returned to a dealership after a five-year break in his employment was still entitled to relief under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found in a case of first impression.

The defendant car dealership argued that the salesman had only been back to work for seven months when he went out on medical leave, and thus he did not satisfy the statutory requirement of being employed by the same employer for at least 12 months.

But the 1st Circuit disagreed and reversed a lower court judgment.

Judge Sandra L. Lynch, writing for the court, ruled that the salesman was an "eligible employee" under the statute and concluded that his time spent away from the dealership did not prevent him from including earlier periods of employment to meet the 12-month requirement.

Lynch added: "We hold that the (law) itself is ambiguous as to whether previous periods of employment count toward the 12-month requirement, but regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Labor establish that previous periods of employment do count."

The 17-page decision is Rucker v. Lee Holding Company, Lawyers Weekly No. 01-391-06.

Allan K. Townsend of Maine represented the plaintiff salesman, and Elizabeth J. Ernst, also of Maine, was counsel for the defendant dealership.

Employment history

From 1994 to 1999, plaintiff Kenneth Rucker worked as a car salesman for the defendant, Lee Auto Malls in Maine.

He left the dealership in 1999 and had no further affiliation with the company until June 2004, when he returned to work there.

About seven months after resuming his employment, the plaintiff ruptured a disc in his back and began receiving medical treatment. At various times, the pain prevented him from working. As a result, he was required to take time off and went on medical leave.

In March 2005, the dealership terminated his employment. At that point, the plaintiff's injury had caused him to miss a total of 13 days of work and he was still out on medical leave.

In January 2006, he filed a complaint in U.S District Court in Maine alleging that the dealership had fired him for taking medical leave in violation of the FMLA.

A District Court judge granted a motion to dismiss filed by the dealership after concluding that the salesman could not combine his previous period of employment with his more recent term and thus could not satisfy the statute's 12-month employment requirement.

Legislative intent

In reversing the lower court's decision and ruling in the salesman's favor, Lynch wrote that the legislative intent of the statute was unclear and that the issue before the court was whether the salesman, at the time he took medical leave, was an eligible employee. …