Under the Family & Medical Leave Act, employees qualify for leave benefits once they have been employed by a company for one year. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (which covers New York and New England) has ruled that a man who was employed only for seven months qualified for FMLA leave. The opinion can be found here. Is this another example of judges "legislating from the bench"? No, it is an example of a court doing its job, interpreting an ambiguous statute in the light of Department of Labor regulations, and coming to a counter-intuitive conclusion.
In short, the employee, Kenneth Rucker, worked for Lee Holding Co. for five years. He left to work elsewhere for five years, and then returned to employment with Lee. After about seven months Rucker ruptured a disc in his back. He took leave, missed 13 days of work, and was fired. Rucker sued under the FMLA.
The trial court dismissed his complaint, finding that he was not eligible for FMLA leave since the length of his recent employment did not meet the 12 month threshhold. Rucker appealed and the Court of Appeals reinstated his case.
The court found that the language of the FMLA was unclear about whether time served in previous employment can be tacked onto current employment to create an entitlement to leave when the current employment is less than 12 months. So the court looked to the DOL regulations and found them to be clearer than the statute, but still ambiguous. So the court looked to the DOL's position in a friend of the court brief, and gave it "controlling weight" to find that Rucker did in fact qualify for leave.
Right now this decision is only binding within the First Circuit. However, due to the court's reliance upon the position taken by the DOL, there is a good chance that it will be followed elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, the FMLA continues to be one of the truly complex areas of employment law.