In order for an employee to be entitled to job-protected Family and Medical Leave, the employer must have reasonable information to conclude that the reason for the requested leave relates to a serious health condition or other qualifying reason for FMLA leave. In many situations, the line between a request for medical leave and leave for other reasons is unclear. Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals attempted to provide some clarity on this distinction.
In Murphy v. FedEx National LTL, Inc., the plaintiff's husband died. She took three days of bereavement leave, and subsequently spoke with her supervisor, who asked her how much additional time she needed away from work. She responded that she needed 30 days "to take care of things" and her supervisor responded by saying "okay, cool, not a problem, I'll let HR know." FedEx terminated the employee a few days later for unapproved absenteeism, and she sued, alleging interference with FMLA rights.
After a jury verdict for the plaintiff, FedEx appealed, claiming among other things, that it never had reasonable notice that the leave requested was for FMLA leave, and not for a non-protected discretionary leave. The Eighth Circuit partially affirmed this part of the verdict, holding that a reasonable jury could conclude that the leave requested here was due to medical conditions resulting from the plaintiff's husband's death. The plaintiff's supervisor was aware that her husband died suddenly, that she was distraught, and that she claimed that she was unable to work due to the effects of her husband's death on her.
The court also concluded that FedEx was estopped from later revoking the supervisor's approval of the 30-day leave. Even if the plaintiff did not complete all necessary steps to formalize FMLA leave under the employer's policies, the supervisor's immediate approval led her to reasonably believe that her leave request had been fully granted.
This case demonstrates the danger arising from an uninformed supervisor's response to an employee leave request. While he was undoubtedly reacting to the tragic circumstances facing the employee, the better response would have been to refer her to HR for consideration of her leave request.