Job-protected Family and Medical Leave does not need to be taken as full-time absences from work. In some circumstances, the employee will request temporarily reduced hours to deal with a medical issue. In others, the employee requests intermittent leave when the unanticipated onset of symptoms makes scheduled leave impossible. Earlier this month in an unpublished decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) indicated that for scheduled leave, the employer can decline a request for part-time work under the FMLA if it interferes with business needs.
In Ranade v. BT Ams., Inc., the plaintiff submitted medical information indicating that she could not work more than four-hour days. The employer accommodated this schedule for a period of time, but the plaintiff alleged that it thereafter told her that she could only take continuous FMLA leave due to client complaints about the part-time schedule. She sued, claiming interference with her FMLA rights.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court noted FMLA regulations (29 C.F.R. § 825.302(f)) as the basis for an employer refusing to allow part-time scheduled FMLA leave due to client objections. The actual rule is not clear on this point. It states that the employer and employee should try to work through scheduling problems, but never directly states that the employer can decline the request based on business issues such as customer needs.
Employers should read this opinion with a degree of caution. It is unpublished, meaning that it has no official precedential value. Second, this reasoning would not apply to unscheduled intermittent FMLA leave, which is governed under a separate DOL regulation. Third, the employer’s alternative would not be to deny FMLA leave, but only to offer it on a full-time continuous basis. Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act may provide the plaintiff with a separate claim for failure to accommodate a scheduling change. However, employers facing business issues with employees requesting reduced hour FMLA leave have at least some legal basis for refusing to grant the request based on unavoidable business circumstances.