Monday, May 18, 2015

“FMLA” is not a magic word

Does an employee have to invoke the letters “F-M-L-A” for an employer to offer it? Or, what if an employer fires an employee who misses work because of an FMLA-qualifying illness for which FMLA-leave was not offered? Has the employer violated the statute?

In Festerman v. County of Wayne (6th Cir. 5/8/15) (h/t: Eric Meyer), a police officer felt chest pains at left work for the emergency room. Five days later, he submitted an incident report, and, a day after that, a doctor’s note that stated, “Patient is advised to limit working hours to 8 hrs/day.”  At no time, however, did the employee specifically request FMLA leave, or invoke the statute for his time off from work.

The 6th Circuit concluded that neither the hospital visit nor the doctor’s note were individually sufficient to place the employer notice that the employee qualified for FMLA leave. However, the court concluded that, presented with the total picture, a fact issue existed as to whether the FMLA covered this employee’s leave.

This Court is confronted with a doctor’s note that expressly discloses a requirement of limiting the employee’s work hours per day, but fails to disclose the condition that gives rise to this requirement or any additional prescribed treatment. Consequently, the doctor’s note submitted by Festerman, in isolation, may not have provided sufficient notice to Wayne County of a qualifying condition under the FMLA. The circumstances surrounding Festerman’s initial qualifying leave, however, provided additional context to the doctor’s note and are evidence that Festerman’s superiors were aware of his potential FMLA-qualifying condition….

Given Wayne County’s knowledge of a serious health-related incident that occurred in the workplace and the doctor’s note which advises that Festerman’s workday should be limited to eight hours per day, a reasonable jury could find that Festerman provided sufficient notice to Wayne County of a FMLA-qualifying serious health condition.

I’ve previously discussed how an employer should handle an employee’s potential or questionable request for leave under the FMLA.

  • If the employer fails to treat the request as one for FMLA leave, the employer assumes all of the risk. If the employer is wrong, and the employee was requesting FMLA leave, an employer is severely limited it its ability to defend an FMLA interference lawsuit.

  • If, however, the employer treats the request as one for FMLA leave, the employee assumes all of the risk. The FMLA provides an employer tools  to verify the legitimacy of the request. The employer can (and should) require that the employee provide a medical certification justifying the need for the FMLA leave. Moreover, if the employer doubts the initial certification, it can require a second (and, sometimes, even a third) medical opinion. If the employer ultimately concludes that the leave does not qualify under the FMLA, it can retroactively deny the leave and treat all intervening absences as unexcused, which usually results in termination.

In other words, employers, err on the side of caution. Use the FMLA’s checks and balances. When in doubt, offer conditional FMLA leave, and confirm with the statute’s medical certification process. And, just, as importantly, train your supervisors to recognize a potential FMLA issue so that they do not get in the way of this process working.

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