Intermittent medical leave requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) present some of the most vexing legal and business challenges for employers. The unpredictability of these absences can create scheduling and productivity issues for many companies. FMLA regulations allow employers to require employees claiming a need for absences to provide notice to the employer using procedures established by the company. Last month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded employers that they cannot deny intermittent leave because the employee does not provide specific details about their need to be out.
In Render v. FCA US, LLC, the plaintiff suffered from an anxiety disorder and was approved for intermittent FMLA leave following the submission of medical certification. He had experienced attendance problems in the past, and the employer appeared to be suspicious of the reasons for these absences. He called the hotline number provided by the employer to notify it that he would not be at work because he was having a flare-up and didn’t feel well. He did not mention FMLA or the anxiety disorder, and the employer terminated the plaintiff on the basis that he failed to provide notice of the need to be out of work due to the approved FMLA condition.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed, reversing a grant of summary judgment for the employer. The court noted that the plaintiff had met his burden for providing notice of his need to use FMLA leave. He already provided notice of his need for FMLA leave when the original request for intermittent leave was made and approved. For each subsequent absence, the employee does not have to ask to use FMLA leave by name. The FMLA medical certification mentioned the likelihood of occasional flare-ups, so the use of this term by the plaintiff placed the employer on sufficient notice that the request was related to the anxiety disorder and not a reason outside the approved intermittent leave request.
The employer was not helped in this case by confusing procedures for reporting absences. If the employer questions whether a particular absence falls under the employee’s FMLA entitlement, it should thoroughly investigate the circumstances and err on the side of liberally interpreting the employee’s obligation to explain the reasons for the leave notification.