Employees eligible for job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act do not need to ask for FMLA leave by name. Employers are deemed on notice of a request for FMLA leave if they are aware that the employee’s medical problems are the cause of absences from work. A new decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates how far the minimal notice threshold has fallen. A janitor told his employer that he was suffering from a “weak bladder” and he subsequently missed work for a week for medical tests relating to his condition. He subsequently told his employer that he would be out several additional days for a biopsy, but was terminated for unauthorized absences from work after complaining of an unspecified illness relating to the biopsy procedure.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer. It concluded that the employee’s notice obligations to the employer are fulfilled if it is likely that the claimed condition is a Serious Health Condition under the FMLA. An employee’s bare assertion that he is sick is not adequate notice. However, in this case, the employer was aware that the employee had the biopsy, and was concerned about the underlying weak bladder condition. The employer cannot rely on the unspecific request for absence that led to termination, without looking at the entire context of its knowledge of the employee’s medical condition. The Seventh Circuit deferred to the Department of Labor’s FMLA rules, which place a minimal notice burden on employees.