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Federal appeals court holds that employee was entitled to FMLA leave because two employers jointly employed him

Last week, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago, affirmed a trial court’s holding that two United Airlines contractors, Trans States Airlines and GoJet Airlines, jointly employed former employee Darren Cuff under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA requires covered employers to provide medical leave to eligible employees.  The FMLA does not cover employers who have fewer than 50 employees.  Trans States and GoJet argued that Cuff only worked for Trans States and, as such, he was not entitled to FMLA leave because Trans States had less than 50 employees.  However, according to regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, when two employers jointly employ an employee, the total number of employees who work for both employers must be counted to determine FMLA coverage.

The court held that Trans States and GoJet jointly employed Cuff and, thus, Cuff was entitled to FMLA leave because Trans States and GoJet, together, employed over 350 employees.  Cuff was the Regional Manager for both Trans States and GoJet.  He represented both companies in dealings with United Airlines as well as O’Hare Airport, in Chicago.  His business card contained the logos of both Trans States and GoJet.  Cuff’s supervisor notified United and other airlines in 2008 that, “[e]ffective immediately, Darren Cuff, Regional Manager, Trans States Holdings, Inc. [sic: his official employer was Trans States Airlines] will be your go to person if there are any operational issues or concerns with Trans States or GoJet Airlines flights operating in and out of your cities.”

Trans States and GoJet argued to the trial judge that Trans States was permitted to terminate Cuff for using medical leave because he would not have needed medical leave had he taken all of the medications his doctor prescribed.  The trial court and the Seventh Circuit both rejected this argument because there was no support for it in the statute, regulations, or case law.

The Seventh Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s awards of $43,200 in damages to Cuff and $325,000 in attorney’s fees and $6,000 in litigation expenses to Cuff’s attorneys.  Trans States and GoJet argued that Cuff’s attorneys should not receive $325,000 in fees for a case that resulted in less than $50,000 in damages.  The Seventh Circuit rejected that argument, in part, because Trans States’ and GoJet’s litigation strategy required Cuff’s attorneys to put $325,000 worth of work into the case in order to refute meritless arguments, such as the argument that Cuff was not entitled to FMLA leave because he did not take all of the medications that his doctor prescribed.