The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides that if an employer violates the FMLA, the employee may be entitled to “liquidated damages”. Liquidated damages are in essence a penalty, are in addition to actual damages and are calculated as an amount equal to:

  1. Wages, salary, employment benefits or other compensation denied or lost to such employee by reason of the violation; plus
  2. Interest on the amount described in clause (i) above calculated at the prevailing rate;

In essence, liquidated damages double the award to a plaintiff.

An employee who makes out a successful claim under the FMLA is generally entitled to liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are the rule, not the exception. Liquidated damages are to be awarded unless the employer sustains its burden of proving that its failure to obey the statute was both in good faith and predicated upon such reasonable grounds that it would be unfair to impose upon it more than a compensatory verdict. To avoid liquidate damages an employer must demonstrate both that:

  • the action or omission was in good faith; and
  • that the employer had objectively reasonable grounds to believe that the act or omission did not violate the FMLA.

An employer’s ignorance of their FMLA responsibilities fails to establish relief from liquidated damages. 29 U.S. C. 2617(a0(10(A)(iii).

Shirley Chase recently involved in a matter where the employer “believed” that the employee was not eligible for FMLA because the employee was in a “probationary” status under her union contract. In a similar case, Brown v. Nutrition Management Services Co. No. 06-2034 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 21, 2009), the jury awarded the plaintiff $74,000 in back pay. In determining whether to also grant an award of liquidated damages, the court found that there was no evidence that the employer had acted in good faith because the employer had made “no legal inquiry into the requirements of the FMLA”. The court noted that the employer had not researched nor had an attorney research the requirements of the FMLA. As a result, in addition to actual damages, the court awarded the plaintiff liquidated damages in the amount of $80,655.82, which equaled her back wages of $74,000 in back pay and pre-judgment interest of $6,655.82.

The Brown decision serves as a reminder to employers to have the provisions of the FMLA seriously researched, and where prudent, to seek the advice of counsel, before denying a request for FMLA. Even where it seems like the employee is obviously not eligible.