Employers Risk FMLA Violation By Delaying FMLA Notification, Designation While Employees Use Other Leave

March 19, 2019

A new U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) opinion letter says warns employers not to delay providing FMLA notice or designating a leave as FMLA-covered when coordinating FMLA protected leave with otherwise available paid or unpaid leave.

FMLA Opinion 2019-1-A states that a FMLA-covered employer must designate as FMLA protected and, absent extenuating circumstances, must provide notice of the designation of the leave as FMLA protected within five business days of the date the employer has enough information to determine an employee has experienced a FMLA qualifying event. The Opinion says this designation and notice must happen even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation of the absence as a FMLA protected leave until the employee exhausts other available leave.

According to WHD, its FMLA regulations require employers to provide a written “designation notice” to an employee within five business days—absent extenuating circumstances—after the employer “has enough information to determine whether the leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason.”  Failure to provide timely notice requirement may constitute an interference with, restraint on, or denial of the exercise of an employee’s FMLA rights. 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.300(e), 825.301(e).  Consequently, the Opinion concludes that the employer is responsible in all circumstances for designating leave as FMLA-qualifying and giving notice of the designation to the employee within five days of learning if events triggering the FMLA eligibility. 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(d).

The Opinion also emphasizes that employers cannot delay the designation of a leave as FMLA protected and provision of notice while a FMLA-eligible employee uses otherwise available leave.  While acknowledging that the FMLA permits an employer to require, or to permit an employee to elect, to “substitute” accrued paid leave (e.g., paid vacation, paid sick leave, etc.) to cover any part of the unpaid FMLA entitlement period,the Opinion states that  “[t]he term substitute means that the paid leave provided by the employer … will run concurrently with the unpaid FMLA leave.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.207(a) (emphasis added).   While acknowledging that the FMLA allows employers to adopt leave policies more generous than those required by the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2653; see 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, the Opinion also says an employer may not designate more than 12 weeks of leave—or more than 26 weeks of military caregiver leave—as FMLA-protected. See, e.g., Weidner v. Unity Health Plans Ins. Corp., 606 F. Supp. 2d 949, 956 (W.D. Wis. 2009) (citing cases for the principle that “a plaintiff cannot maintain a cause of action under the FMLA for an employer’s violation of its more-generous leave policy”).

Furthermore, the Opinion also openly rejects and disagrees with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc., 743 F.3d 1236, 1244 (9th Cir. 2014) that an employee may use non-FMLA leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason and decline to use FMLA leave in order to preserve FMLA leave for future use. Instead, the Opinion adopts the position that once an eligible employee communicates a need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason, neither the employee nor the employer may decline FMLA protection for that leave. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d) (“Employees cannot waive, nor may employers induce employees to waive, their prospective rights under FMLA.”); Strickland v. Water Works and Sewer Bd. of City of Birmingham, 239 F.3d 1199, 1204 (11th Cir. 2001) (noting that the employer may not “choose whether an employee’s FMLA-qualifying absence” is protected or unprotected by the FMLA).  Accordingly, the Opinion concludes that when an employer determines that leave is for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the qualifying leave is FMLA-protected and counts toward the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.  Once the employer has enough information to make this determination, the employer must, absent extenuating circumstances, provide notice of the designation within five business days.  Therefore, the employer may not delay designating leave as FMLA-qualifying or providing notification, even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation.

The Opinion also clarifies the WHD’s interpretation of the FMLA limits the protection of the FMLA to the statutory period set by the FMLA.   In this respect, the Opinion states, “An employer is also prohibited from designating more than 12 weeks of leave (or 26 weeks of military caregiver leave) as FMLA leave.”  Thus, while acknowledging that “[a]n employer must observe any employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA.” under 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, the Opinion also states that “providing such additional leave outside of the FMLA cannot expand the employee’s 12-week (or 26-week) entitlement under the FMLA.” Therefore, the Opinion states that if an employee substitutes paid leave for unpaid FMLA leave, the employee’s paid leave counts toward his or her 12-week (or 26-week) FMLA entitlement and does not expand that entitlement.

As many employers currently coordinate and administer their FMLA and other leaves inconsistently with the positions stated in the Opinion, employers generally should consult with experienced legal counsel within the scope of attorney client privilege about the implications of the guidance set forth in the Opinion on their existing practices and about whether any corrective action or modifications are advisable in light of the Opinion to minimize potential exposure to FMLA liability.   In connection with this review, employers also generally will want to evaluate their other paid and unpaid military, medical, maternity/paternity, adoption and other absence and leave policies and associated employee benefit plans to confirm that these designs continue to operate as intended and that current coordination practices comport with existing guidance.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;   domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations;  and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.

Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, FMLA and other leave, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline;  handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.

Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, heavily involved in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. She regularly helps employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce plans, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; vendors and suppliers; deal with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA, state insurance law and other private payer rules and requirements; contracting; licensing; terms of participation; medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, and other provider-payer relations; reporting and disclosure, government investigations and enforcement, privacy and data security; and other compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; Civil Rights; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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EEOC Attacks Medical Leave Denials As Prohibited Disability Discrimination

October 19, 2010

Two new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuits filed against a Texas concrete manufacturer and Los Angeles garment manufacturer highlight the need for U.S. employers with more than 14 employees to consider and prepare to defend against potential disability discrimination exposures when dealing with medical leave requests by employees who might be considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as other expanding ADA enforcement exposures.  Read more.

The lawsuits reflect that employers considering an employee’s request for medical leave should evaluate if the ADA requires the employer to grant the requested medical leave in addition to considering any otherwise applicable leave entitlement the requesting employee qualifies for under the Family & Medical Leave Act, state leave laws or otherwise applicable employer policies.  As a result, all employers of 15 or more employees generally should review and tighten their policies and processes for evaluating requests for medical leave to minimize their exposure to claims that the denial of a requested medical leave violated the ADA. 

Furthermore, employers also should consider the advisability of other more generalized policy or procedure updates to strengthen their defensibility against potential ADA and other disability claims generally in light of stepped up enforcement by the EEOC and private plaintiffs changes to the ADA made by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) that makes it easier for employees to win ADA suits. To mitigate growing exposures to these claims, employers covered by the ADA and/or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 should review and strengthen their existing hiring and other employment practices and documentation to strengthen their defensibility in the face of these new challenges. 

If you need assistance responding an employee’s request for medical leave or other accommodations, or otherwise to review, update or defend your disability discrimination or other employment, compensation, benefits or other workforce, internal controls or risk management practices, please contact the author of this update, Board Certified Labor & Employment attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

Other Resources

If you found this information of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing other recent Solutions Law Press updates including:

About Ms. Stamer

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. When working with clients, Ms. Stamer combines a client-oriented approach with an extensive practical and technical knowledge of human resources, insurance, employee benefits, health care, privacy & security, corporate compliance and other legal matters to assist clients to formulate and administer pragmatic operational and risk management strategies and effective internal controls taking into account the financial, operational, political, legal and other realities confronting the client.

Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble Premier AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker who serves in the leadership of many professional and civil organizations.  She regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of workforce management, employee benefits, compensation, risk management internal controls, and other related matters for businesses, trade and professional associations and others. Her insights on human resources risk management matters appear in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications.  To request Ms. Stamer’s assistance, for information about arranging for Ms. Stamer to provide workshops and other training, to access other publications or resources or for more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer at via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail at cstamer@solutionslawyer.net or see CynthiaStamer.com.

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©2010 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  License to reprint granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

Labor Department FMLA Guidance Signals Need For Employer Care Determining Who Qualifies As Child

July 19, 2010

Employers and employee benefit plan administrators deciding whether to approve the request of an employee for leave or other rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) due to the serious illness, birth, adoption or placement of a child with no legal or biological relationship with the employee  should not underestimate the scope of the FMLA’s reach based on recent guidance.  Employers and plan administrators also need to be sure that their policies are properly drafted and administered to apply right definition of child based on the class of leave requested as the family-status-relevant definitions under the FMLA and other laws continue to proliferate.

Recent Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division Wage and Hour Division (WHD) guidance reveals the WHD adopts a very broad view of the circumstances under which a when a child with no legal or biological relationship to an employee can qualify as a “son or daughter” for purposes of determining rights of the employee under the FMLA based on the birth , adoption, placement for adoption or need to care for the  child during a serious illness and a narrow view of the documentation that an employer may require an employee to provide to prove such a relationship exists.[i] 


The FMLA entitles an employee to 12 work weeks of leave for the birth or placement of a son or daughter, to bond with a newborn or newly placed son or daughter, or to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition.[ii] 

The definition of “son or daughter” under the FMLA includes not only a biological or adopted child, but also a “foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis” who is either: 

  • Under 18 years of age; or
  • 18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability.”[iii]

In Loco Parentis

The FMLA regulations define in loco parentis as including those relationships between an employee and a child where the facts and circumstances show that the employee has undertaken day-to-day responsibilities to care for and financially support a child.[iv] 

Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2010-3 (June 22, 2010) (WHD Interpretation) clarifies the definition of “son or daughter” under Section 101(12) of the FMLA as it applies to an employee standing “in loco parentis” to a child taking FMLA-protected leave for the birth or placement of a child, to care for a newborn or newly placed child, or to care for a child with a serious health condition.  The WHD Interpretation does not address an employee’s entitlement to take military FMLA leave for a son or daughter, which is determined by separate definitions. 

The WHD Interpretation states that the FMLA does not require an employee who intends to assume the responsibilities of a parent to prove that he or she provides both day-to-day care and financial support to be found to stand in loco parentis to a child. 

According to the WHD Interpretation, the determination of when an employee has an in loco parentis relationship with a child is fact specific question based on the facts and circumstances with no particular factor being dispositive. . The WHD Interpretation adds that the fact that a child has a biological parent in the home, or has both a mother and a father, does not prevent a finding that the child is the “son or daughter” of an employee who lacks a biological or legal relationship with the child for purposes of taking FMLA leave.    

“The key in determining whether the relationship of in loco parentis is established is found in the intention of the person allegedly in loco parentis to assume the status of a parent toward the child.  The intent to assume such parental status can be inferred from the acts of the parties” taking into account a variety of factors including the age of the child; the degree to which the child is dependent on the person claiming to stand in loco parentis; the amount of support, if any, provided; and the extent to which duties commonly associated with parenthood are exercised. 

Noting Congress intended  the phrase “in loco parentis” to ensure that an employee who actually has day-to-day responsibility for caring for a child is entitled to leave even if the employee does not have a biological or legal relationship to that child, the WHD Interpretation states the phrase is commonly understood to refer to “a person who has put himself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations incident to the parental relation without going through the formalities necessary to legal adoption.  It embodies the two ideas of assuming the parental status and discharging the parental duties.”  

Applying these principles, the WHD Interpretation identifies various situations where the WHD perceives that relationship in loco parentis might exist for purposes of the FMLA based on the assumption of the employee of either responsibility to care for a child or financial responsibility for the child in the absence of a biological or legal relationship including: 

  • Where an employee provides day-to-day care for his or her unmarried partner’s child (with whom there is no legal or biological relationship) but does not financially support the child;
  • Where an employee who will share equally in the raising of a  newborn or adopted child with the child’s biological parent;
  • Where a grandparent takes in a grandchild and assumes ongoing responsibility for raising the child because the parents are incapable of providing care,;
  • Where an aunt assumes responsibility for raising a child after the death of the child’s parents.

In contrast, the WHD Interpretation notes that an employee who cares for a child while the child’s parents are on vacation would not be considered to be in loco parentis to the child. 

When determining whether to approve a FMLA Leave request of an employee seeking time off due to the birth, adoption, placement for adoption or serious illness of a child with whom the employee has no biological or legal relationship, the WHD Interpretation makes clear that the WHD construes the phrase “in loco parentis” broadly.  Furthermore, the WHD Interpretation also signals the need for employers to exercise caution when requiring documentation of the existence of such a claimed relationship. While acknowledging that the FMLA allows an employer to require an employee claiming a relationship in loco parentis with child to require the employee to provide reasonable documentation or statement of the family relationship, the WHD Interpretation raises questions about the degree of documentation that the employer may require.  According to the WHD Interpretation, “[a] simple statement asserting that the requisite family relationship exists is all that is needed in situations such as in loco parentis where there is no legal or biological relationship.”[v] 

Drafting Policies & Using the Right Standard for the Right Circumstances

When drafting and applying FMLA and other legally mandated policies, it’s important that employers, employee benefit plan sponsors and administrators and others use the correct standard for the circumstance prevented.  The FMLA definition of child from the WHD Interpretation applies only to determinations of the status of a person as a son or daughter for purposes of the FMLA’s leave provisions regarding leaves requested due to the serious illness, birth or adoption of a child of an employee and not for military related FMLA leaves.  Different standards apply for military related FMLA leaves.  Similarly, the standards used to determine who qualifies as a child for purposes of FMLA may not necessarily be the same as legally required to decide when an individual qualifies as a child for other legal purposes.  For instance, recent changes to federal health plan rules enacted as part of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act may require that group health plans and insurers use different standards to decide when an individual qualifies for enrollment as the child of an employee in dependent coverage beyond those applicable under the FMLA.  It is highly advisable that employers and employee benefit plan sponsors and administrators carefully review and update their existing policies, plan documents and practices for compliance with the appropriate and currently applicable standards and exercise care in the administration of these practices to avoid costly mistakes. 

About the Author

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer has more than 23 years experience working with employers, professional employment organizations, employee benefit plan sponsors and administrators and others on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefits, and other management matters.  The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, the editor of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other health industry and human resources concerns. She regularly speaks and conducts training for the ABA, Institute of Internal Auditors, Society for Professional Benefits Administrators, Southwest Benefits Association and many other organizations.  Publishers of her many highly regarded writings on health industry and human resources matters include the Bureau of National Affairs, Aspen Publishers, ABA, AHLA, Aspen Publishers, Schneider Publications, Spencer Publications, World At Work, SHRM, HCCA, State Bar of Texas, Business Insurance, James Publishing and many others.  You can review other highlights of Ms. Stamer’s experience here.  

If you need help with human resources or other management, concerns, wish to ask about compliance, risk management or training, or need legal representation on other matters please contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or (469)767-8872.  

Other Resources 

If you found this information of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing other recent Solutions Law Press updates including: 

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to receive our Solutions Law Press distributions here. For important information about this communication click here.    If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject to here. 

©2010 Solutions Law Press. All rights reserved. 

[i] See 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(g), (h). 

[ii] See 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(A) – (C); 29 C.F.R. § 825.200. 

[iii] 29 U.S.C. § 2611(12).  See also 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.122(c), 825.800.[1]. 

[iv] 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(c)(3). 

[v] See 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(j); 73 Fed. Reg. 67,952 (Nov. 17, 2008).