Recently, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio took up the issue of whether the period for calculating eligibility for leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act could be modified by contract or a collective bargaining agreement in Valentino v. Wickliffe City School District Board of Education, et al.

Plaintiff, Lynn Valentino had served as a bus driver for the Defendant, Wickliffe City School District Board of Education (the “Board”) for sixteen years. Ms. Valentino’s husband was also a school employee but was fired in 2007. He subsequently brought suit against the Board alleging he was discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Ms. Valentino continued to work for the Board while her husband’s suit was ongoing. This allegedly raised the ire of at least one of the Board members, Board Treasurer Susan Haffey, who described the Valentinos as “rotten, horrible people.”

In 2010, Ms. Valentino’s nine-year old grandson was diagnosed with cancer and she sought FMLA leave to help her son and daughter-in-law care for the child. The Board reviewed the hours Ms. Valentino worked in the twelve months preceding the date of her request, which was November 15, 2010, and determined that she had worked the required 1,250 hours in that period to qualify for FMLA leave. Ms. Valentino was put on leave until March 4, 2011.

However, Ms. Haffey subsequently contended that Ms. Valentino did not qualify for leave, as the calculation of time had included hours paid but not actually worked, including sick days and vacation days. Upon recalculating the days worked without the hours paid but not worked, Ms. Valentino had not worked the required 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 month period and was ordered to return to work. Though she initially did return, she did so simply to inform the Board that she was going to take the rest of her leave as scheduled. The Board informed her that if she didn’t report to work, she would be abandoning her job. Ms. Valentino did not return. Instead, she filed suit against the Board for interference with her FMLA rights and retaliation for her attempted exercise of those rights.

The Board filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that because she didn’t work the required hours in the year preceding her request for leave, her claims under the FMLA fail as a matter of law. However, there was a collective bargaining agreement in place between the Board and Ms. Valentino’s union which defined the period for calculating FMLA leave as being the “school year” or “July 1 to June 30.” As such, Ms. Valentino contended that the Board had to use the period defined by the collective bargaining agreement to determine her eligibility for FMLA leave.

While there was no precedential law which the Court or either party could identify on this issue, the Court agreed with Ms. Valentino and denied the Board’s motion, stating that 29 U.S.C. § 2652 noted that the FMLA was not meant to interfere with bargained-for rights under a collective bargaining agreement. As the Board had agreed to the collective bargaining agreement with Ms. Valentino’s union, and that agreement provided “greater rights” than afforded under the FMLA, the Court held that it should control Ms. Valentino’s eligibility for FMLA leave. Under the court’s calculation, Ms. Valentino exceeded the number of hours required for eligibility during that period, and thus, she could easily prove her retaliation and interference claims under the FMLA.

The FMLA, while seemingly simple in construction, can be problematic for employers, especially those who do not pay close attention to tracking employee attendance and the statute’s minimum requirements. The Northern District of Ohio’s ruling in Valentino provides yet another twist to the scheme for employers with contractual employees or unionized workforces by holding that contractual agreements between employers and employees can create stricter standards if the agreement affords greater rights to the employee than the statute. Caution is always needed in bargaining with employees, whether on an individual level or with a union. In structuring such agreements, be aware of the requirements of statutory schemes that are likely to come into play, and realize that altering the statutory minimum requirements may create greater obligations for your company.