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Seventh Circuit Notes Denial of FMLA Not a Requirement For Interference Claim

Salvatore Ziccarelli worked for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (“County”) as a corrections officer for 27 years. He claims that he contacted the department's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) manager to request taking additional leave. He had 176 hours remaining for the year. According to Ziccarelli, the manager told him, "you've taken serious amounts of FMLA…don't take any more FMLA. If you do so, you will be disciplined." Although the manager did not specify the nature of any discipline, Ziccarelli feared the County would fire him. He retired shortly after their conversation. The County disputed Ziccarelli's account of the conversation.

The FMLA prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of FMLA rights and from discriminating or retaliating against employees for using those rights. The FMLA allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for medical and family reasons. Ziccarelli claimed the County discouraged him from taking FMLA leave. The County argued that it did not deny Ziccarelli’s request and thus did not violate the FMLA. Ziccarelli never formally requested leave. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated if it upheld the County's assertion, the statute would allow employers to interfere with an employee's rights as long as they do not deny a request. "Rights under the FMLA would be significantly diminished if it permitted employers to actively discourage employees from taking steps to access FMLA benefits or otherwise to interfere with or restrain such access," according to the Seventh Circuit. Interfering with an employee's request for leave is enough for the court to find a violation. The appellate court sent the case back to the lower court for a fact-finder to assess the competing versions presented by the parties.