In Olson v. U.S., the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling that found an employer’s failure to alert an employee of her FMLA rights was not willful. Let’s talk about the case and what it means for employers.

Olson, who worked as a reasonable accommodation coordinator for Bonneville Power Administration (“BPA”), filed a lawsuit asserting BPA willfully interfered with her rights under the FMLA. Whether the interference was willful is particularly significant to Olson’s case because (a) under the FMLA, willful violations are subject to a three-year statute of limitations unlike non-willful violations, which are subject to a two-year limitation period; and (b) Olson filed her lawsuit well after the presumptive two-year-limit.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Olson’s case and held that for the three-year limitations period for “willful” violations of the FMLA to apply, a plaintiff must show that her employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for whether its conduct violated the FMLA. In doing so, the court noted:

  • Although BPA had admitted it failed to alert Olson of her rights, the court held an employer’s failure to provide notice does not result in a standalone cause of action, even though employers have a duty to inform employees of their entitlements under the FMLA. Instead, an employee must prove that the employer violated the FMLA by “interfering with, restraining, or denying his or her exercise of FMLA rights.”
  • The inquiry for interference with FMLA rights is whether the employer’s conduct makes an employee “less likely to exercise their FMLA leave rights [because] they can expect to be fired or otherwise disciplined for doing so.”
  • The definition of “willful” for FLSA claims also applies to claims brought under the FMLA.

The Olson decision is important because it articulates courts’ intent to apply unified standards across various employment-based statutory schemes. This is particularly helpful for employers as it provides a common understanding of what constitutes “willful” conduct.

About the Author: Alejandro Pérez is a partner at Jaburg Wilk. Fully bilingual, Alejandro assists employers of all sizes with labor and employment law issues. In addition to representing clients in litigation, Alejandro provides advice and counsel on HR decisions; conducts sensitive workplace investigations; drafts and reviews employment policies, handbooks, and agreements; and trains workforces on a variety of aspects of employment law.

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