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Historic FMLA Supreme Court Case

(Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide, Inc.)
March 19, 2002

For the first time in history, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide, the Supreme Court was asked to determine the validity of a portion of the Department of Labor regulations which interpret the FMLA.

  • Click here for an analysis of the decision (what the Court decided and didn't decide as well as the implications).
  • Click here for text of the Court's decision.
  • Click here for the text of the brief filed by SHRM before the U.S. Supreme Court. The FMLA Technical Corrections Coalition assisted in reviewing the brief and the Coalition is described in the beginning of the brief.
  • Click here for SHRM's press release further describing the brief.

Oral arguments were held on January 7, 2002 and a decision was issued on March 19, 2002, affirmed by a vote of 5-4. The Opinion author was Justice Kennedy in which Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens Scalia and Thomas joined. Justice O'Connor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Beyer joined.

Description of Issue
The regulations in question disproportionately and unnecessarily penalize employers for failing to designate employee leave as "FMLA leave." The Labor Department's interpretation allows an employee to stack FMLA leave on top of other types of paid or unpaid time off and results in an employee receiving more than the 12 weeks of leave required under the FMLA. The petitioner exhausted seven months of employer-provided leave for the treatment of cancer. When she then requested additional leave under the FMLA, the company informed her that her FMLA leave had been exhausted. However, her employer had not given her prior notice that the leave being provided counted towards her 12-week allowance of FMLA leave.

Background: Summary of Supreme Court Oral Arguments
Petitioner (attorney Sutter) started his oral argument talking about a "basket of benefits" that was denied because of a failure to give notice. Shortly into his oral argument, Justice O'Conner asked about the statutory posting of rights as did Justice Ginsberg. Justice Scalia asked petitioner if there were any rights denied and commented that basically the punishment did not fit the crime. He observed that Ragsdale did in fact receive more than enough leave to satisfy the FMLA. He was followed by Justice Kennedy who reiterated that point, adding that to provide an additional 12 weeks would extend the statute.

The Department of Labor Solicitor's (Stewart's) oral presentation included attempting to analogize the use of statute of limitations as to why the Department of Labor's position was appropriate. However, Kennedy stated that was by statute and not by rulemaking. Stewart replied that in their brief they listed an example regarding when the EEOC's issued guidance on interpreting a statute of limitation. However, Kennedy replied that when a statute of limitations, e.g. two years, runs and a defect is then found, another two years is not added on top. Stewart referenced a National Labor Relations Act situation where the National Labor Relations Board allows for relief under the presumption that rights are denied even when no harm is found. Justice Ginsberg then added that in the case the employer gave leave for four weeks even when she was not eligible. It seems she was trying to get at equity here and the difficulty in providing notice in this type of situation.

Respondent (Bennett) started his argument discussing Congressional intent. Justice Beyers pursued a line of questions regarding what Bennett would think the appropriate remedy would be i.e. $10,000 or $5,000 fine. Bennett agreed that a monetary penalty was best but did not say what amount. Scalia jumped in to basically make the argument for him and stated that a damage provision was already in place. The discussion then focused on the difference between paid and unpaid notice. He set out the differences and explained why the Department of Labor regulation was invalid and a damage provision was already in place. He stated that what the Labor Department has done is "create a new penalty scheme". Bennett explained how the company posted notice, had a employee handbook and provided an employee orientation that discussed the employee rights including FMLA. He also explained that the employee was under a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which should have provided additional communication of FMLA rights.

During Petitioner's rebuttal he talked again about the denial of a basket of benefits and then added that the CBA forced the company into having such an extensive leave policy and that the company was basically not very generous. Chief Justice Rehnquist was quick to add a CBA by its very nature is designed to extract as much as possible and everyone laughed.

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