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Note to Supervisor: Consult HR before Approving FMLA Leave

We all know that an employee need not specifically state that she requires a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). What we don’t know is how much (or how little) an employee has to say in a particular situation to put the employer on notice that she is seeking FMLA leave. The following case addresses the issue in a slightly unusual way.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including FMLA

Leave request is ‘cool’
Susan Murphy and her husband began working as truck drivers for Federal Express Co. (FedEx) in September 2006 after FedEx acquired their previous employer. When Murphy’s husband became ill and was hospitalized, she sought FMLA leave from her immediate supervisor, Jeff Karnes, under the provision of the law allowing employees to take leave to care for a spouse with a serious medical condition.

Karnes told her that she needed to speak with HR. In accordance with the HR representative’s instructions, Murphy sought and received medical certification from her husband’s doctor confirming her need for leave. FedEx then granted her FMLA leave to care for her ailing husband.

On September 7, Murphy’s husband died unexpectedly. That same day, she called Karnes to notify him of her husband’s death and ask him about employee benefits related to funeral and burial expenses. She was noticeably distraught over the death of her husband, so he offered to get the benefit information and contact her when he had it. She then took three days of bereavement leave in accordance with FedEx policy.

On September 11, Karnes called Murphy and told her that her FMLA leave had technically ended on September 7, when her husband died. He then asked her how much more time she needed before returning to work. She said she needed 30 days “to take care of things.” Karnes responded by saying, “Okay, cool, not a problem, I’ll let HR know.” He never mentioned anything about needing approval from HR for the leave, and Murphy didn’t pursue the matter any further.

On September 12, Karnes told an HR rep that Murphy had requested 30 days’ leave to “put her affairs in order.” HR denied the request, leading Karnes to call Murphy to inform her that she had been terminated.

FMLA Complete Compliance

Employee’s case heats up
Murphy sued FedEx for interference with her FMLA rights, claiming that she had been granted extended FMLA leave by her supervisor and that it was unfair to take it away from her after she had relied on his approval. After much wrangling in court over the proper interpretation of the law and how to instruct the jury, the judge denied FedEx’s request for a directed verdict (a verdict handed down by the judge instead of a jury) and allowed the jury to decide the case.

The jury issued a verdict in Murphy’s favor, and FedEx appealed, claiming that the judge should have granted its request for a directed verdict in its favor. Specifically, the company claimed the judge should have concluded that a reasonable jury couldn’t find that Murphy gave adequate notice of her need for FMLA leave. In addition, even if the notice was sufficient, FedEx argued that she wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave because the need to take time off to “take care of things” is not a serious health condition that qualifies for protection under the Act.

The FMLA requires employees to provide enough information to demonstrate that they may need FMLA leave. The appeals court observed that courts have previously ruled that simply informing an employer about a diagnosis of depression is not adequate since it is a “condition with many variations” and not everyone with depression qualifies as having a serious medical condition. On the other hand, asserting a need for depression-related leave “again” has been deemed sufficient since it reflects the recurrence of a condition that the employer previously recognized as a serious medical condition.

HR Q&A Book: Family & Medical Leave Act

Where did this case fall within the spectrum?
The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while an employee’s request for time to “take care of things” ordinarily would be insufficient, other accompanying facts would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Murphy gave adequate notice of the need for FMLA leave. For example, Karnes was aware that her husband died unexpectedly and that she was noticeably distraught. He also knew that she was unable to work the night shift because it was the shift her husband had worked.

Thus, a jury could consider Murphy’s mental state — and the company’s awareness of that state — in evaluating the sufficiency of the notice. As a result, a reasonable jury could decide, based on all the evidence, that FedEx should have known that her request for time off was actually attributable to her mental health and her need to seek treatment for it.

Employer’s defense gets the cold shoulder
The judges then turned to FedEx’s claim that Murphy didn’t qualify for FMLA leave. They observed that even if that were true, it didn’t resolve the matter because her real claim centered on her reliance on her supervisor’s apparent approval of the leave. This principle, known as promissory estoppel, requires proof that one party made a representation to the other and that the party receiving the representation reasonably relied on it to her detriment.

FedEx argued that Karnes’ statement, “Okay, cool, not a problem, I’ll let HR know,” wasn’t a sufficiently definite approval of Murphy’s leave request to justify her reliance on it. The company noted that she had just gone through the FMLA leave request process and therefore should have known that more formal steps were required.

The judges disagreed, finding that Karnes’ statement could easily be interpreted as permission to take the leave and a promise to inform HR accordingly. They felt it was reasonable for Murphy to conclude that since Karnes didn’t specify that she needed to take any additional steps to request or obtain the leave, it had in fact been granted.

Since a jury could find that Murphy’s reliance on Karnes’ statement was reasonable and since her reliance on the statement harmed her (she was fired for taking unauthorized leave), she met the elements of her promissory estoppel claim. Susan A. Murphy v. FedEx National LTL, Inc ., Case Nos. 09-3473/3518 (8th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 26, 2010).

Basic Training for Supervisors

Boiling it all down
If your managers and supervisors don’t have the authority to grant or deny leave, make sure they understand that, and make sure they are exceedingly clear in discussing such matters with employees. In addition, be sure employees know exactly what they must do to request and receive a leave of absence and who is authorized to make those decisions. There is no doubt that a busy and distracted supervisor might be less precise than we would hope in talking to an employee. When that happens, you want to make sure it doesn’t result in an unanticipated and undesirable result.