Sixth Circuit Revives Worker's Equitable Estoppel Claim Related to FMLA Eligibility

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By Lisa Nagele

Jan. 26 — A county road commission employee in Michigan who was fired for failing to timely complete assignments may proceed with his Family and Medical Leave Act claims even though he wasn't an “eligible employee” under the statute because he established a genuine dispute as to whether his employer was equitably estopped from challenging his eligibility to seek FMLA benefits, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Jan. 26.

Partially reversing summary judgment for the Kalamazoo County Road Commission, the appeals court found that, although Terry Tilley wasn't an eligible employee under the FMLA because the county had fewer than 50 employees within 75 miles of his workplace, he may have reasonably relied on an eligibility statement in the commission's personnel manual, which omitted this information, when he took leave after experiencing heart attack symptoms.

Tilley “pointed to evidence—his sworn affidavit—that he sought medical treatment prior to completing his assignment because the unqualified and unambiguous statements in the Manual led him to believe that he was covered under the FMLA,” Judge Matthew F. Leitman wrote for the court.

But the appeals court affirmed summary judgment for the commission on Tilley's state-law age discrimination claim, finding that he failed to show he was replaced by a younger person or that the commission treated similarly situated younger employees differently than him. Furthermore, the commission's reason for discharging him—his failure to complete assignments by set deadlines—was legitimate and nondiscriminatory, Leitman said.

Judges Richard F. Suhrheinrich and Richard Allen Griffin joined the opinion.

Discharged for Failure to Meet Deadlines

According to the court, Tilley worked for the commission for approximately 18 years prior to his termination. In 2011, he received several reprimands for failing to submit assignments by established deadlines.

Tilley claimed his supervisor unfairly prevented him from completing assignments by directing him to make revisions each time he attempted to submit a final version.

In July 2011, Tilley received a final warning that failure to timely complete his assignments would result in termination.

On the day an assignment was due, Tilley said he experienced heart attack symptoms, and a co-worker took him to the hospital. Tilley never finished the assignment, and his wife informed the commission that he would be unable to return to work for several days at least.

The commission informed Tilley that he was eligible for FMLA leave. However, several days later, it terminated his employment because he failed to timely submit a satisfactory version of his assignment in accordance with his final warning.

Reasonable Reliance on Personnel Manual

Tilley claimed the commission interfered with his right to, and retaliated against him for taking, FMLA-protected leave.

The Sixth Circuit found that Tilley wasn't eligible to take FMLA leave because the commission didn't meet the threshold of employing at least 50 employees at, or within 75 miles of, Tilley's work site. However, the court found that Tilley established a genuine dispute regarding his alternative argument that the commission was equitably estopped from claiming he was ineligible for FMLA benefits.

The commission's personnel manual stated, “Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.”

The commission could have qualified this statement by adding that employees would only be covered if they worked at, or within 75 miles of, a site at which the commission employed at least 50 employees, the court said.

Tilley submitted an affidavit stating that he was aware of the policy, and had he known he wasn't entitled to leave, he would have had someone drive him to work to “complete the brief finishing touches” to his assignment.

The commission argued that Tilley's statement—that he would have considered the manual's FMLA language during an emergency—was “wholly incredible.” But the ultimate question of his credibility is for a jury, the court said.

The commission itself concluded that he was eligible for FMLA benefits, so it is “in no position to argue that Tilley acted unreasonably in reaching the same conclusion,” the court held.

The Sixth Circuit remanded the case to the district court to address the commission's additional arguments with regard to Tilley’s FMLA claims.

William F. Piper PLC represented Tilley. Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge represented the commission.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Nagele in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at

Text of the opinion is available at