According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can place employers on notice of their need for leave without specifically mentioning the FMLA. If an employer has reasonable information indicating the employee's need to be away from work due to a qualifying medical condition, the employer must treat this knowledge as a request for FMLA leave, even if the employee has not made any specific request. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an employee's casual disclosure of her parents' medical issues to her supervisors did not rise to the level of a request for FMLA leave.
In Nicholson v. Pulte Homes Corp., the plaintiff told her supervisor that her father had been diagnosed with leukemia and that she may need to miss work in the future to care for him. She later disclosed her mother's kidney problems and said that she drove her mother to medical appointments on her days off. After the plaintiff was terminated for performance reasons, she claimed that the employer's actual motivation was to avoid giving her time off to care for her parents.
The Seventh Circuit rejected this claim, finding that the plaintiff never placed her employer on notice of her need for FMLA leave. One casual conversation does not rise to the level of a request for FMLA leave, especially when the employee only indicated a possible need for future leave without any specific dates or commitments. The court also stated that employees who claim companionship leave rights are held to a higher notice standard than would be the case where the employee needs leave for his or her own medical condition.
In this case, the employer had strong evidence of performance problems that led to the termination decision. Employers should not use this decision as an excuse to willfully ignore evidence that an employee needs FMLA leave, or that performance problems are the result of a condition requiring leave. However, employers are not considered mind readers, and absent reasonable proof of a request for leave or clear indication of need, they will not be expected to act as if such request has been made.