By: Tiffanie Benfer, Esq.
Sometimes it can be penny wise and pound foolish to take action against an employee without a clear understanding of the law.
In Brown v. Nutrition Management Services Co., a decision of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania released on January 30, the court found that the company’s failure to have an attorney research the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) meant that the company had not acted in “good faith.” This finding cost Nutrition Management Services over $80,000 in additional liquidated damages.

The FMLA provides that an employee whose employment is terminated in violation of the FMLA is entitled to lost wages, interest, and – if the employer has not acted in good faith – liquidated damages equal to the amount of lost wages. In other words, if the employer cannot show that it acted in good faith, the employee will receive double the lost wages.
In Brown v. Nutrition Management Services Co, Melissa Brown was the food service director for a nursing home. When the nursing home contracted with Nutrition Management Services to manage food services, she continued on in her job with Nutrition Management Services as her new employer. She was fired after announcing her pregnancy, and brought suit alleging that her employer had interfered with her right to take leave under the FMLA. (This raises an obvious question of why she did not sue for Pregnancy Discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. My guess is that she missed the PDA’s very short statute of limitations, but that she was able to bring an FMLA claim under its longer 2 year statute of limitations.)
Nutrition Management Services’ director of HR was also an attorney. He came to the conclusion that Ms. Brown hadn’t worked for the company long enough to qualify for FMLA leave. However, he did not specifically research the issue of whether her previous employment should count toward the time requirements of the FMLA, nor did the company hire outside counsel to look at this issue.
This failure to do basic legal research led the court to conclude that the termination of Ms. Brown’s employment was not in good faith and to impose liquidated damages in excess of 80 grand. Ouch.