The Catholic University of America

Selected Case Law

Anderson-Speight v. Howard University, D.C. Superior Court, 98-CA-7143 (April 27, 2000) (reported in DC Law Reporter March 12 and March 13, 2001).

The plaintiff was an employee of Howard University who suffered numerous ailments which resulted in her inability to work. After a year of extended leave, the University terminated the plaintiff. The termination letter mentioned that she had exhausted all leave, including that guaranteed under the FMLA. Prior to the termination letter, the University had failed to provide the plaintiff with any information regarding her rights and obligations under the Act. In addition, the plaintiff had never been informed that any portion of her leave was being designated as FMLA leave. Plaintiff invoked the language in the regulations that were promulgated by the Department of Labor under the FMLA to argue that she was entitled to an additional twelve weeks of unpaid FMLA leave beginning when Howard University first notified her regarding her FMLA rights. The University argued that she had in fact had leave in excess of what was required by law, and thus had suffered no injury by the University's failure to abide by the regulations.

The regulation in question, 29 CFR § 825.208(a) reads in part "…if an employee takes paid or unpaid leave and the employer does not designate the leave as FMLA leave, the leave does not count against an employee's FMLA entitlement. "

The Court found that although there was support for the plaintiff's position in the plain language of the regulations, the Department of Labor had overstepped the permissible bounds of its authority in promulgating the regulations, and accordingly, pursuant to the Supreme Court doctrine announced in Chevron, U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), the Court is not obliged to apply the agency interpretation when the statute is silent or ambiguous on the issue challenged. The Court reasoned that since the FMLA was silent of the issue of notice due to an employee from the employer, the agency had overstepped it's bounds, and the regulation was not in accord with the clear intent of the statute to provide only twelve weeks of paid leave. This is an interesting use of the Chevron case as most scholars have interpreted Chevron as mandating a strong deference to the regulations promulgated by the Agency charged with interpreting the law. (see Merrill, Thomas, and Hickman, Kristin, Chevron's Domain 89 Geo. Law. Journal (April 2001). In that article there is a discussion of the potential contraction of the Chevron doctrine in the Supreme Court case of Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000).

While this case may be useful to invoke as a defense when a failure to notify has occurred, it may not be a safe case for employers to rely upon when instituting policies on how to comply with the FMLA.

updated mlo 7/5/10