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Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

February 9, 2017

FRANTZ COUTARD, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
MUNICIPAL CREDIT UNION, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: February 10, 2016

         Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Eric N. Vitaliano, Judge, dismissing plaintiff's complaint alleging that his former employer interfered with and denied his right under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., to take leave in order to take care of his seriously ill grandfather who, in loco parentis, had raised him as a child. The district court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that, although the FMLA provides that an eligible employee such as plaintiff may be entitled to leave to care for a person with whom he had an in loco parentis relationship as a child, plaintiff had informed defendant that he needed to take care of his grandfather without mentioning the in loco parentis relationship. On appeal, plaintiff contends principally that the district court erred in ruling that his failure to mention the nature of the relationship was dispositive, given the facts, acknowledged by defendant, that defendant did not inform its employees that an in loco parentis relationship could entitle them to FMLA leave, did not inquire whether plaintiff had such a relationship with his grandfather, and instead, when plaintiff requested such leave, responded categorically that he was not entitled to FMLA leave to care for a grandparent.

         Plaintiff asks that we reverse that ruling and order that partial summary judgment on the issue of liability be granted in his favor. We hold that because plaintiff met the eligibility requirements for

         FMLA leave and requested that leave expressly to care for his seriously ill grandfather, defendant as an employer covered by the FMLA had an obligation to specify any additional information that it needed in order to determine whether plaintiff was entitled to such leave. We conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to defendant, but that plaintiff was not entitled to partial summary judgment in his favor.

         Vacated and remanded.

          ABDUL K. HASSAN, Queens Village, New York (Abdul Hassan Law Group, Queens Village, New York, on the brief), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          DOUGLAS E. MOTZENBECKER, New York, New York (Gordon & Rees, New York, New York, on the brief), for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: KEARSE, POOLER, and SACK, Circuit Judges.

          KEARSE, Circuit Judge:

         Plaintiff Frantz Coutard appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Eric N. Vitaliano, Judge, dismissing his complaint alleging that his employer defendant Municipal Credit Union ("MCU") denied him leave and terminated his employment in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA" or the "Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., after Coutard sought leave to take care of his seriously ill grandfather who, in loco parentis, had raised him as a child. The district court granted MCU's motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that, although the FMLA provides that an eligible employee may be entitled to take leave in order to care for a person with whom he had an in loco parentis relationship as a child, Coutard had informed MCU merely that he needed to take care of his grandfather without informing MCU of the in loco parentis relationship. On appeal, Coutard contends principally that the district court erred in ruling that his failure to mention the nature of the relationship was dispositive, given the undisputed facts that MCU did not inform its employees that an in loco parentis relationship could entitle them to FMLA leave, did not inquire whether Coutard had such a relationship with his grandfather, and, when he requested FMLA leave, responded categorically that the FMLA did not entitle him to such leave to care for a grandparent. Coutard asks that we reverse the dismissal of his complaint and order that partial summary judgment on the issue of liability be granted in his favor. For the reasons that follow, we hold that because Coutard met the eligibility requirements for FMLA leave and requested that leave expressly to care for his seriously ill grandfather, MCU as an employer covered by the Act had an obligation to specify the additional information that it needed in order to determine whether he was entitled to such leave. We conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to MCU on the basis that Coutard had failed to provide the necessary information, given MCU's denial of Coutard's request without requesting additional information. In light of other facets of the record, we conclude that Coutard was not entitled to partial summary judgment in his favor.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Coutard sought leave under the FMLA to care for his grandfather Jean Manesson Dumond. According to Coutard, Dumond had raised Coutard as his son from before the age of four, after Coutard's father died, until Coutard was approximately 14. In January 2013 Dumond--who had suffered a stroke in 2011--lived with Coutard, was 82 years old, and suffered from a number of chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma, prostate cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease. On the evening of January 22, 2013, Dumond was taken to a hospital by ambulance; he was diagnosed with bronchitis, and was discharged on January 23. Coutard, believing that Dumond was seriously ill and should not be left unattended, determined to stay home and care for him until Coutard could secure the assistance of a home health aide, and he sought FMLA leave to do so. MCU denied him leave, and when he remained at home to care for Dumond, MCU terminated his employment.

         In this action alleging that MCU's actions interfered with and violated Coutard's right under the FMLA, both sides moved for summary judgment. Certain of the facts, and the applicability of certain basic legal principles, are undisputed.

         It is undisputed that MCU, a financial institution, was an employer to which the FMLA applied throughout January 2013; that Coutard was employed by MCU from July 18, 2011, to February 4, 2013; and that in the 12 months preceding his January 23, 2013 request for FMLA leave, Coutard worked for MCU for more than 1250 hours and was within the FMLA's definition of employees who were "eligible, " 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A), to take leave in order to care for a person deemed a family member by the FMLA, see id. § 2612(a)(1). Such persons include a grandfather who stood in loco parentis to the employee when the employee was a child under the age of 18. See id. §§ 2612(a)(1)(C), 2611(7), 2611(12)(A).

         In granting MCU's motion for summary judgment, the district court also found it undisputed that

Coutard was raised by his maternal grandfather, Jean Manesson Dumond, after his biological father passed away before Coutard's fourth birthday. Dumond acted in all respects as [Coutard's] father--feeding him, clothing him, paying for his education, taking him to school, providing emotional and social support. In fact, Dumond referred to Coutard as his son.

Memorandum and Order dated April 9, 2015 ("D.Ct. Ord."), at 1-2 & n.1 (internal quotation marks and citations to Plaintiff's Rule 56 Statement of Material Undisputed Facts ("Coutard's Rule 56.1 Statement") omitted).

         In January 2013, when Coutard requested FMLA leave to care for Dumond, it is undisputed that "MCU informed Coutard that he could not take FMLA leave to care for his grandfather, because the statute does not apply to grandparents . . . ." (Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Facts in Support of Its Motion for Summary Judgment ("MCU's Rule 56.1 Statement") ¶ 12 (emphases added).) The district court stated as follows:

On January 23, 2013, following Dumond's bronchitis episode, plaintiff took leave from MCU to care more intensively for him. . . . To provide th[e necessary] level of care for his grandfather, Coutard absented himself from work from January 23, 2013 to February 4, 2013.
Prompted by his grandfather's bout with bronchitis, plaintiff requested to take FMLA leave from MCU, but it was denied on the ground that grandparents are not covered under the Act. Critically, although defendant never informed Coutard that grandparents could be covered under the FMLA, depending on the circumstances, Coutard admits that he never notified MCU, at the time he made the FMLA request or at any relevant point thereafter, that Dumond had raised him as if he were his father. Specifically, Coutard admits, he merely asked MCU whether he would be permitted to take leave for his grandfather and did not provide MCU with specific information about his personal circumstances or suggest that his grandfather might stand in loco parentis with him. Following his inquiry, though MCU did not permit him to take FMLA leave, it did advise him to apply for a short-term leave of absence under a separate MCU personnel policy. Coutard then took no action, applying neither for the FMLA leave nor the short-term company leave.
. . . . Because he was absent for more than two consecutive days without leave, on February 4, 2013, MCU notified him by letter that his employment was terminated due to job abandonment.

D.Ct. Ord. at 3-4 (internal quotation marks--as well as citations to Coutard's Rule 56.1 Statement, MCU's Rule 56.1 Statement, Defendant's Counterstatement of Disputed Facts in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("MCU's Rule 56.1 Counterstatement"), and Plaintiff's Counterstatement of Facts in Response to Defendant's Rule 56 Statement of Material Facts--omitted) (emphases added).

         Coutard argued that he would have informed MCU about the in loco parentis relationship with his grandfather had he been asked or had he known of those FMLA provisions. However, he stated,

[d]efendant . . . never informed me that grandfathers are in fact covered by the FMLA if an in loco parentis relationship exists. If defendant or [its benefits manager with whom Coutard spoke] had informed me about the FMLA's in loco parentis coverage or had requested information as to whether grandpa Dumond had an in loco parentis relationship with me when I was a child, I would have gladly and promptly provided such information.

(Declaration of Frantz Coutard dated May 12, 2014, ¶ 23.)

         In response, MCU took the position that it was not obligated to inform employees affirmatively of the FMLA's coverage of in loco parentis relationships. (See, e.g., MCU Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Coutard's Motion for Summary Judgment ("MCU's Opposing Mem.") at 1-2, 7-8.) MCU pointed out that United States Department of Labor ("DOL") regulations promulgated under the FMLA allowed employers to post a DOL form provided in Appendix C to 29 C.F.R. Part 825 ("Appendix C") in satisfaction of their duties to provide employees with "a notice explaining the Act's provisions, " 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(a)(1); see id. § 825.300(a)(4). Based on part of the DOL form provided in Appendix C--submitted to the district court by MCU in support of its motion for summary judgment (see Declaration of Douglas E. Motzenbecker dated May 12, 2014 ("Motzenbecker Declaration"), Exhibit J)--MCU argued that the employee has the burden, at the time he requests FMLA leave, to provide all of the facts needed to show his entitlement to that leave. (See MCU's Opposing Mem. at 2-3, 6-7.)

         The district court agreed with MCU's position. It stated that in order to prevail on his FMLA claim, Coutard was required to prove five elements, to wit,

(1) that he [wa]s an eligible employee; (2) that defendant constitute[d] an employer covered by the Act; (3) that he was entitled to leave; (4) that he gave notice to his employer of his intention to take leave; and (5) that his employer denied him benefits that he was entitled to under the Act,

D.Ct. Ord. at 8, "the only one in material controversy [being] the fourth, " id. at 9. The court framed the dispositive issue as "whether Coutard sufficiently notified MCU of Dumond's in loco parentis relationship with him and that it was on that basis he sought FMLA leave, " id. It quoted a regulation that requires an employee to "'provide sufficient information'" to indicate that "'the FMLA may apply to the leave request, '" and requires the "'employer'" to seek "'any additional . . . information'" needed for it to determine "'whether the leave is FMLA-qualifying, '" id. at 11-12 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b) (emphases ours)). But the court concluded that the employee's obligation is to provide the employer with all of the needed information "at or before the time he requests leave." D.Ct. Ord. at 14. It stated:

Under 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b), to seek leave for the unforeseeable illness of an immediate family member, such as a parent, an employee must "provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request." Further, "[w]hen an employee seeks leave for the first time for a FMLA-qualifying reason, the employee need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA." Id. "The employer will be expected to obtain any additional required information through informal means, " and "the employee has an obligation to respond to an employer's questions designed to determine whether an absence is potentially FMLA-qualifying." Id. . . . Similarly, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(b), an employer becomes obligated to notify the employee of his eligibility to take FMLA leave "[w]hen an employee requests FMLA leave, or when the employer acquires knowledge that an employee's leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason." The employer's notification requirements come into effect once "the employer has enough information to determine whether the leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason." Id. at § 825.300(d)(1), (2).
In determining the adequacy of the notice given by the employee, [t]he critical question is whether the information imparted to the employer is sufficient to reasonably apprise it of the employee's request to take time off. . . . While an employer's duty to inquire may be predicated on statements made by the employee, the employer is not required to be clairvoyant. . . . An employer's duty to conduct further inquiry into a request for leave is triggered when an employee gives sufficient notice of a . . . need for the requested leave. . . .
. . . FMLA is not triggered unless the employee can later show that the employer should have reasonably understood, at the time of the request, that the expressed ...

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