Court Rejects Estoppel In Government Case

Governmental employee, Kathleen Nagle (Nagle) appealed the summary judgment of the District Court, claiming her employer gave her oral assurances that she had coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and then fired her for taking the leave.  When brought before the Appeals Court the case presented the central issue of whether equitable estoppel could be applied against a government employer based upon the employer’s oral assurances to the employee of their having coverage under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), even when the employer denies the alleged assurances ever occurred.

The case is Kathleen Nagle vs. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District

Nagle had been working since the year 2000 as a part time employee in the position of school monitor for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District (School District).  In January 2004, Nagle requested leave in order to tend to her ailing husband and claims that she was told that she could take FMLA leave.  Nagel took leave until April 2004.

In February 2005, Nagle took several days off to care for her husband and says that it was suggested by the School District that she take family medical leave.  Nagle then requested FMLA leave in a letter dated February 18, 2005, but never received a reply.  She then took eight weeks of leave.  In March 2005, Nagle says she thanked the School District for granting her FMLA leave and that it was never explained that she was not entitled to FMLA leave.

Once Nagle returned to work in April 2005, she says she was told her that additional FMLA leave was available if necessary, and after her husband reentered the hospital, she again in early May 2005 took what she believed to be FMLA leave.  Nagle’s husband died at the beginning of June.  She says that she was told not to worry about rushing to return, and claims that she was told that she had “nothing to worry about.”  The school year ended in June 2005.  On July 12, 2005, Nagle’s employment with the School District was terminated and Nagle concluded that it was because she had taken leave.  Nagel then filed suit against the School District for violating the FMLA.

The School District claimed that Nagle was told when she first requested leave that she was not eligible for FMLA, further claiming that she was instead told that she could take non-FMLA leave with continued health insurance.  They also advised the court that Nagle was not eligible for FMLA leave since she had worked only 554 hours of the required 1,250 hours in the 12-month period before taking leave, and that Nagle’s job ended only because the district had completed construction work on a new building and no longer needed monitors in the parking lots.

The School District moved for summary judgment on the ground that Nagle was not eligible for FMLA leave and as a result had no claim.  When Nagle responded that “the School District was estopped from relying on her lack of eligibility because of their alleged assurances and that it had taken her leave into account in terminating her position,” the District Court refused to apply estoppel against the governmental employer and instead granted summary judgment in its favor.

Nagle appealed, with the central issue before the court being whether equitable estoppel was available for the circumstances presented before them.

Historically various reasons have been given as to why governments are exempt from estoppels.  The explanation is said to mingle history, doctrine and practical concerns.

Nagle was not claiming that she was in fact eligible for FMLA leave.  She was instead arguing that the school district should be estopped from denying her coverage because of the promises that they allegedly made to her.  Under the law, the contours of equitable estoppel, when directed against a private party, seeks to prevent injustice when an individual detrimentally and predictably relies on the misrepresentation of another.  But under the federal precedent, governments have not been subject to estoppel or, more recently, have been held not subject to estoppel, except in “exceptional situations.”

The Appeals Court was not unsympathetic to Nagle.  Her husband was sick and, by her account, she was several times assured by the School District that she could have FMLA leave.  The core difficulty in this case was that estoppel against the government posed a real problem.  If the Appeals Court reversed the findings of the District Court, the result could have opened the door for larger far more potentially costly estoppel cases.

Nothing in Nagle’s complaint suggested an “exceptional situation” existed.  The Appeals Court found nothing worse than uninformed reassurance on the part of a school official trying to be helpful to Nagle.  By her own account, Nagle had nothing in writing to confirm that any such representation was made to her.  The prime danger of a court applying estoppel to the government is the prospect of a “he said-she said” case.  Something in writing would have been far more likely to represent an authoritative assertion and might have helped Nagle’s case.

Finding that Nagle had no right to FMLA leave under the statute because she did not work the requisite number of hours, the Appeals Court affirmed the decision of the District Court.

Mechanisms now exist for employees to get rulings on whether they are entitled to FMLA leave; and regulations under the existing statute, which were recently strengthened (but after the events in this case), now require employers to provide written rulings on FMLA requests.   See 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(d) (2009).

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