Family and Medical Leave Act Continues To Evolve

Federal Courts in Pennsylvania have given further interpretation to the evolving Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Two recent cases have repercussions pertaining to use of vacation time and the applicability of the FMLA to a category of employees.

Employee Permitted to use Paid Vacation Time for Family Emergency

In Solovey v. Wyoming Valley Healthcare System, plaintiff’s father had been in Hospice care. Upon hearing that his condition had worsened, she left work for just over four days. Both parties agreed that her absence was permissible leave. The employee wished to be paid for the time off by applying accrued vacation time, but the employer was not willing to pay the employee for the time off.

Plaintiff was a member of a union and, thus, covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The CBA required her to give two weeks’ notice of her intent to use paid vacation time. Due to the emergency of her father entering critical condition, plaintiff could not give the two weeks’ notice.

The court held that the employer should have permitted the employee to use paid vacation time, despite the lack of notice required by the CBA. The court held that the CBA could not restrict rights the FMLA granted the employee and since employees are permitted to apply paid vacation leave to leave granted under the FMLA, the CBA’s notice requirement could not negate this right.

The case illustrates that rights afforded under the FMLA win out over provisions of collective bargaining agreements.

FMLA Not Applicable to “Ministerial Workers” at Churches

Courts across the country have recognized a “ministerial exception” which renders many employment laws inapplicable to those involved in a “ministerial capacity” with religious organizations. This exception does not apply to all employees of a church, such as custodial or clerical employees, but only those charged with ministering to a congregation. The federal appeals court covering Pennsylvania has never decided whether the exception would apply to the FMLA.

The district court (one level below the appeals court) predicted how the appeals court would most likely rule in Fassl v. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, (E.D. Pa. 2005). The case involved a church music director who resigned from her employment. She alleged constructive discharge due to a medical condition despite not raising her medical condition in her resignation letter. When Plaintiff sought reinstatement to her job, the Church refused. Plaintiff filed a claim under the FMLA, among other causes of action.

The Court analyzed plaintiff’s position as the Church’s director of music. While she was not an ordained clergy person, her position as a director of music was “ministerial” in that it involved an understanding of the liturgy of the Church. The Court stressed that music was an integral part of a worship service and that she was responsible for carrying out this important ministry.

The Court, thus, held the music director’s tasks as ministerial in nature and applied the ministerial exception to the situation, holding that the FMLA did not apply to the music director.

The FMLA continues to evolve and develop. The attorneys at Goldberg Katzman, P.C. advise both employers and employees from all walks of life regarding their rights under the FMLA. Call Goldberg Katzman with your questions.

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