Granted, for benefits pros it can definitely seem like the FMLA strongly favors employees. But that doesn’t mean a worker can suddenly miss work for an entire month without so much as a phone call, then stroll into the office to get her FMLA forms as if nothing happened … does it?
In a nutshell, that’s what happened in this recent FMLA lawsuit.
The case brought up a very interesting question: What constitutes “sufficient notice” for FMLA-qualifying leave and when is it OK for employers to make adverse employment decisions because they didn’t receive it?
Told a co-worker
Here’s the background: An employee for Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation told a co-worker with whom she carpooled to work that she wouldn’t come in one day because she was sick — and asked the co-worker to relay the message to the company.
Following that absence, the employee didn’t show up or contact her employer for more than a month. Then, when she returned, she asked her employer for the proper FMLA forms to fill out, so leave would cover her absences, which she claimed were caused by her depression.
The company, however, had already terminated her. It said she had not provided sufficient notice of her intent to take FMLA leave. In response to her termination, the employee filed a lawsuit claiming FMLA interference. So what did the court say?
Breaking down the ‘sufficient notice’ argument
The good news is the court sided with the company in this case, and shot down a number of arguments from the employee on why she had actually provided “sufficient notice.”
First, the employee tried to say that she’d provided sufficient notice when she told her car-pooling co-worker to alert the company of her absence.
But the court didn’t agree because the co-worker couldn’t recall whether or not she had said anything about the employee’s depression to the company at the time she delivered the message.
The employee also argued that she should be excused from the providing notice because of the FMLA’s “extraordinary circumstances” exception. To that argument, the court pointed out that the exception doesn’t necessarily excuse giving notice altogether. And because the employee wasn’t incapacitated, she could’ve contacted the company during her hiatus.
Finally, the employee tried to argue that her behavior provided the employer with “constructive notice” of her need for leave, and that the company should’ve known that her unusual behavior could’ve triggered a leave event.
Again, the court wasn’t buying it. An employee has a responsibility to notify his/her employer that the need for leave might be FMLA-qualifying, the court said and rejected the “constructive notice” argument.
The sad thing for the employee in this case is the fact that it sounds like she had a legitimate reason for taking FMLA leave — had she just given her employer some notice about what was going on.
When firms can take action
Bottom line: Even though the burden is on employers to determine whether FMLA leave applies, employees still have to meet them halfway and provide some details on what the issue actually is.