Heyl Royster

Sufficient Notice of FMLA Leave or Not?

november 19, 2018

An update on what may trigger an employer's obligations under federal law

Recent federal court rulings in Illinois and Missouri provide some guidance for employers navigating the sometimes difficult situation of discerning whether an employee has given sufficient notice of a medical condition to trigger the obligation to provide benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This is important because when an employee seeks leave under FMLA, the employee need not expressly assert rights under the Act or even mention FMLA. Rather, the employee must only explain the reasons for the requested leave. Then, based upon this information, the employer then must determine whether the leave qualifies under FMLA.

An employer's FMLA obligation

The Illinois federal court noted that in FMLA matters, an employer is often a classic "repeat-player" with superior knowledge of FMLA law. Importantly, the court noted that once an employee places an employer on notice of probable cause for FMLA leave, the employer is obligated to seek out additional information that will confirm the employee's entitlement, or lack thereof. In sum, the employee's duty is merely to place the employer on notice of a probable basis for FMLA leave. At this critical juncture, an employer must carefully evaluate its obligations under FMLA.

Facts of the cases

The Illinois case involved an employee who reported to human resources that she needed leave because she was "tending to her grandmother." The employer had also told an HR representative about her grandmother's illness on another occasion. In response, the employer did not seek additional information from the employee to clarify her need for FMLA leave. Rather, the company only asked when the employee was returning to work and it did not offer her FMLA benefits.

The court found that the information received from the employee could have been enough to trigger the employer's obligation to further investigate eligibility for FMLA leave. Thus, the court allowed the matter to proceed to a jury trial.

In the Missouri case, the employee told her supervisor she wanted leave because of her new medication. However, she did not state how much leave she needed or that her condition was serious. This same employee also requested vacation, but did not specify for a medical condition. Ultimately, the court held that these statements were not sufficient notice that the employee had a serious health condition to qualify for FMLA leave.

Other cases illustrates this legal spectrum

In other federal cases, an employee who told his employer "that he wanted to stay home” with his wife and newborn, without providing further information, did not provide sufficient notice. Likewise, where an employee told a subordinate co-worker that he was "contemplating taking a medical leave," did not trigger his employer's obligations under the FMLA.

On the other hand, courts have found that an employee gave sufficient notice in these scenarios: An employer was put on sufficient notice related to employee's absence where employee's wife emailed employer that he was hospitalized; and, an employee's attempted suicide put the employer on notice that employee may request FMLA leave.

For further information about compliance with the Family Medical Leave Act, contact one of the attorneys in the Heyl Royster Employment and Labor Practice Group in Illinois or Missouri.

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