Tuesday, February 18, 2020

7th Circuit concludes employer should have advised injured employee of FMLA rights even after employee went AWOL

Buddy Phillips injured his ribs while playing with his grandchildren. Over the next two weeks, he called his employer, United Trailers, to report he would miss work. Eventually, however, he stopped making these phone calls. When he failed to show up at work for three straight days without giving notice, United fired him under its attendance and reporting-off policy.

He sued, claiming that United interfered with his rights under the FMLA by failing to advise him of his rights under the statute after it had notice of his serious health condition but before he went AWOL.

In Phillips v. United Trailers, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that in this instance, the employee’s FMLA rights trumped the employer’s attendance and reporting policy.

Even if Phillips failed to comply with the FMLA by failing to report his absences, he did so after United would have violated the FMLA. Phillips stopped calling in to work at least nine business days after he first reported his rib injury to United. Under the regulations, United had five business days after receiving notice of Phillips’s rib injury to determine whether he qualified for FMLA leave.

In other words, an employer cannot rely on its attendance and reporting-off policy to terminate an AWOL employee if the employer is already on notice that an FMLA-qualifying event might be the cause of the employee’s unreported absences.

So what should an employer do in this situation, when an employee might have triggered the FMLA’s protections? The FMLA’s regulations offer some guidance.

  1. If the need for leave is foreseeable to the employee, it's a much easier issue. The employee must give 30 days notice, which gives the employer and the employee more than enough time to work out their leave and attendance issues.

  2. If the need for leave is unforeseeable, however, the employee must provide notice of his intent to take leave to the employer as soon as practical under the circumstances. That notice must “provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request.” Critically, an employee “need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA, but may only state that leave is needed.” 

  3. The burden then shifts to the employer. The employer must decide whether to designate the request for leave as FMLA-qualifying. Its decision to designate FMLA leave “must be based only on information received from the employee.” If the employer lacks information about the reason for an employee’s request for leave, the employer should inquire further of the employee to determine whether leave is potentially FMLA-qualifying. The employer should not, however, bury its head in the sand and ignore the employee, because if the leave turns out to be FMLA-covered, the employer will have a big legal problem. Just ask United Trailers

  4. Importantly, the employer only has five business days to notify the employee whether leave will be designated as FMLA-qualifying, absent extenuating circumstances.

  5. Throughout this back-and-forth time period, the employee must comply with the employer’s “usual and customary notice and procedural requirements for requesting leave.” If the employee does not comply with the employer’s usual leave-request requirements, the employer is within its rights to deny or delay the FMLA leave. If, however, the employee provides notice and complies with the employer’s attendance policy, the employer’s failure to timely determine whether the employee’s leave counts as FMLA-qualifying may constitute an interference with the employee’s FMLA rights.

These are complicated issues that often do not have cut-and-dry answers and can carry seriously expensive consequences for an employer’s missteps. If an employee presents you with an injury- or illness-related absence that may, or may not, qualify for FMLA protections, your first call should be to your employment lawyer to make sure that you are handling this issue correctly under the FMLA’s maze of rules and regulations.

* Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash