The importance of carefully scrutinizing an employee’s stated reasons for seeking medical leave was underscored in a recent federal court decision. The failure to do so may lead to unintended liability for violating the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The plaintiff in Gardner v. City of Philadelphia had conflicts with her supervisor and was involved in several difficult meetings with him. The employee subsequently sent an email to her supervisor stating “With me being in a stressful work environment and having other medical issues, my doctor wants me to take sick leave for a few days. I am hoping to return to work some time next week.” The “other medical issues” that Gardner referred to, but did not fully describe, apparently were depression, anxiety and stress, which she alleged were caused by interactions with her manager. However, her depression and anxiety were not actually diagnosed by her doctor, nor was she on medications for those conditions.
Before she could return to work, she was terminated due to continued performance deficiencies. She filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation for having sought FMLA leave.
The Court pointed out that to establish a claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that he or she invoked their right to FMLA-qualifying leave; (2) that they suffered an adverse employment action; and, (3) that it was causally related to their pursuit of FMLA rights.
To establish that they properly invoked their right to the FMLA, an employee does not have to show that he or she expressly requested leave under the FMLA, but they must show that they provided information sufficient for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply. Calling in sick, without providing more information, would not be considered sufficient notice. The key, obviously, is how the information received by the employer should be reasonably interpreted. Normally, when the employer is on reasonable notice of the employee’s potential need for FMLA leave but does not have sufficient information about the reason for an employee’s use of leave, it should further inquire of the employee to determine whether the leave is FMLA-qualified.
The Court found it to be very significant that the purpose of the plaintiff’s leave was to determine if she actually qualified for FMLA leave. It observed that plaintiff did not indicate that she intended to request FMLA leave, was considering going on FMLA, or had a serious health condition. In short, the record didn’t establish that the company was on notice that the employee was intending to use the requested sick leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason.
Although the Court in this case ruled on the company’s behalf before the matter even went to trial, its discussion and analysis of the information given by the employee to her supervisor and its analysis of the stated reasons by the employee for her FMLA leave demonstrates that it was navigating through a gray area. Employers who are contemplating disciplinary action against an employee who has just sought or returned from a medical leave should take a step back, draw a deep breath and review the information they have at their disposal to determine whether it is sufficient to cause them to be believe that FMLA rights were involved or to cause them to seek further information.