Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, in order to trigger job-protected leave rights, eligible employees must provide employers with sufficient information to allow the employer to conclude that FMLA leave obligations apply. A very common situation faced by employers involves an employee who provides vague information relating an absence to a health problem, but fails to provide additional details or backup. According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in its new opinion in Greenwell v. State Farm Automobile Ins. Co., this failure to provide supporting information removed the absence from FMLA. The plaintiff had been placed on a last chance warning regarding absenteeism. She missed work shortly thereafter, claiming that her son had fallen into a levee, and had been scared and shaken up. She declined to fill out FMLA medical certification for the absence, because she had not taken him to a doctor.
After being terminated for the absence, the employee sued, claiming that the incident qualified for FMLA leave because the accident had aggravated her son’s chronic asthma condition. She claimed that medical certification was not required because State Farm was fully aware of her son’s condition from previous FMLA absences. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, affirming summary judgment for the employer. The court stated the “employers are not required to be clairvoyant.” The information provided to the employer was not sufficient for it to conclude that the absence was related to the plaintiff’s son’s asthma, especially given the fact that the plaintiff refused to fill out the medical certification form. The case demonstrates the critical importance of human resource professionals carefully documenting information provided by employees for their absences. If the employer can show that it reasonably did not know that the absences were related to FMLA-protected reasons, leave obligations will not apply.