Benefits & Compensation News

FMLA suit: Was text message enough to trigger leave?

HR and benefits pros are well aware that employees don’t actually have to use the phrase FMLA when requesting the law’s protections. But courts can’t expect employers to be virtually “clairvoyant” … can they?

Lanier v. Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center tested the limits of how far employers must go to determine if FMLA leave is in play.

Background: Chrisanne Lanier was a business analyst for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. As part of her job description, Lanier was required to take part in a rotating schedule of on-call duty. The on-call duty, which consisted of 24-hour on-call coverage support, took place about once every twelve weeks for business analysts.

When Lanier was on her on-call rotation, she sent a text message to her supervisor alerting him that she’d be unable to work that night because her father was in the emergency room. Lanier’s supervisor let her know that another analyst would cover her on-call duties that night. Following the text message, Lanier ended up switching her on-call rotation with another employee.

But here’s where things went awry.

Nowhere to be found

When Lanier was supposed to be making up her on-call rotation week, she couldn’t be reached via phone. Her supervisor confronted Lanier about being unreachable, and she proceeded to return her laptop and pager, and leave the office without offering any type of explanation.

This led Lanier’s supervisor to inform her that he’d be accepting her resignation, which in turn prompted Lanier to file a lawsuit against her employer for interfering with her FMLA rights.

Her claim: Based on the text message she sent regarding her father’s ER visit, the company should’ve know she was in need of protected FMLA leave. Plus, Lanier said her supervisor should’ve looked into the situation further because he knew that her father was over 90 and in poor health.

‘Not required to be clairvoyant’

An appeals court court sided with the employer.

Even though an employee doesn’t have to specifically use the phrase “FMLA leave” the court said Lanier was required to give her employer sufficient notice to determine whether the request for time off could fall under FMLA, which she didn’t do.

The court said even though an employer has a responsibility to inquire further if statements made by the employee warrant FMLA, “the employer is not required to be clairvoyant.”

Based on the text message the supervisor received, which only requested that Lanier be relieved of her on-call duty on the night she sent the message, the court ruled it was unreasonable to expect the supervisor to know that Lanier meant to request FMLA, the court added.


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