Vague Statements + Prior FMLA = Sufficient Notice

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By:  Claudia D. Orr 

 

A judge in the Eastern District of Michigan recently denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment finding the employee’s vague statements had provided sufficient notice of her need to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Patten-Gentry v Oakwood Healthcare, Inc.

In this case, the plaintiff became employed by Oakwood Healthcare, Inc. in 1998 and worked as a Lead Office Assistant until she was discharged in 2011 for performance issues. For most of her life, plaintiff had suffered from Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. Her condition caused difficulty in sleeping, uncontrollable crying, and becoming easily stressed, among other things. During her employment, Oakwood disciplined plaintiff several times for work-related problems and, at times, provided her with some minor accommodations for her condition.

In early 2011, plaintiff was suspended from work and, thereafter, experienced a “nervous breakdown”.  She subsequently applied for, and was granted, a FMLA leave from January 24 to February 24, 2011.

On Wednesday, March 30, plaintiff received a corrective action form after which plaintiff was upset and crying.  Plaintiff told the officer manager she could not stay, was struggling, could not do this, needed to go home, and needed a few days off.  She left work and did not return until Monday, April 4.

On April 4, plaintiff met with a human resources employee and was terminated for unacceptable performance.  Plaintiff claims that, at that meeting, she told the human resources employee that her “FMLA paperwork from [her] doctor said [she] would need to leave during flare-ups.”

Plaintiff brought suit claiming disability discrimination and that Oakwood had violated the FMLA by interfering with her right to take a leave of absence and retaliation for taking FMLA leave.  This article only focuses on the FMLA interference claim.

In its motion to dismiss, Oakwood argued that “following her initial FMLA leave, [Plaintiff] never requested an additional leave.” That, “[u]nder the FMLA regulations, an employee must provide her employer with enough information about the reason for the leave to permit the employer to designate the leave as FMLA leave.”  Oakwood argued that plaintiff’s statements were insufficient to give it such notice.

Plaintiff argued that her statements prior to leaving work on March 30 were sufficient to put Oakwood on notice that she was taking FMLA leave pursuant to her doctor’s statement that she might need more time off due to flare-ups of her condition.

Focusing on Sixth Circuit law, the court noted that “the critical test for substantively-sufficient notice is whether the information that the employee conveyed to the employer was reasonably adequate to apprise the employer of the employee’s request to take leave for a serious health condition that rendered [her] unable to perform [her] job. … And crucially, where the employee provides notice to an employer but that notice does not make explicit that the FMLA applies, the burden shifts to the employer to determine whether the event is FMLA-qualifying.” In other words, where sufficient information is given that the employee needs to take a leave of absence, it is the employer’s obligation to make further inquiries to determine if facts exist that may qualify for FMLA leave.

The court acknowledged that plaintiff’s statements (she “could not stay”, “was struggling” and “could not do this”) were vague and did not specifically reference her medical condition. However, her behavior was similar to that when she previously experienced emotional difficulties.  And, given plaintiff’s prior FMLA certification indicating that she may have flare-ups, the burden shifted to Oakwood to make further inquiries to determine whether the absence qualified for leave under FMLA.  Thus, Oakwood’s motion to dismiss was denied.

The lesson is clear.  Whenever there is a basis for believing that the absence is medically related or could qualify for FMLA leave, make further inquiries sufficient to reach a determination.  And, if you require guidance, contact an experienced employment attorney (like the author) before, not after, you take an adverse employment action.

This article was written by Claudia Orr, who is the chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, and an employment attorney at Plunkett Cooney in its Detroit, MI office. She can be reached at 313-983-4863 or corr@plunkettcooney.com. 

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information, is included in the re-post of the article. April 2015.

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