An employee walks visibly shaken into your human resources office. She is upset about a work reassignment and says she does not feel properly trained for the new position. She has an emotional meltdown in front of you: crying and shaking so severely that she requests an ambulance. You attempt to calm her and instruct her to go home to ease the situation.
Has this employee’s obvious distress — and what appears to have been a full-blown panic attack — put you on notice for a possible need for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act?
Yes, according to a recent ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed a summary judgment by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. A potentially serious health condition and an “as soon as practicable” notice standard may entitle an employee — in this case, a distraught nurse — to FMLA leave protections, the appellate court found.
The case is Clinkscale v. St. Therese of New Hope, No. 12-1223 (8th Cir. Nov. 13, 2012).
Facts of the Case
For five years Ruby Clinkscale worked as a nurse at St. Therese, a long-term care facility in New Hope, Minn. Clinkscale received training only for the rehabilitation unit, where she worked exclusively until she was reassigned to the long-term care unit.
When Clinkscale requested unit-specific training before reassignment, her supervisors allegedly informed her that she had “no choice. You either work or you don’t have a job and that’s called ‘patient abandonment’ and you can lose your license.”
Clinkscale immediately went to HR to speak with the HR director. During their conversation, Clinkscale experienced what her doctor the next morning diagnosed as a “situationally triggered” anxiety attack.
That same morning Clinkscale delivered a doctor’s note that recommended she take the rest of the week off work. In return, HR provided FMLA forms for her doctor to complete.
Later that day, however, HR called Clinkscale at home to inform her that she had been terminated the previous day for refusing her work assignment and walking off the job.
Clinkscale filed suit, claiming that St. Therese interfered with her right to take reasonable leave for medical reasons under FMLA. St. Therese argued that Clinkscale was not entitled to FMLA rights because she had no longer been an employee at the time she asserted them and she had been terminated for reasons “wholly unrelated to FMLA.”
The Courts Weigh in
The district court issued summary judgment in favor of St. Therese. The appellate court found that the district court erred for at least three reasons:
- Clinkscale’s diagnosed incapacity for one full week, accompanied by two prescriptions for medication and an advised course of ongoing therapy, satisfies the FMLA standard for a “serious health condition.”
- FMLA establishes that when leave is needed for an unforeseeable event, notice ordinarily means at least verbal notification to the employer within one or two business days of when the need for leave becomes known to the employee. Clinkscale’s notice fell well within the two-day window, and a jury could reasonably conclude it had been provided “as soon as practicable” under the circumstances.
- FMLA cannot reasonably be read to provide relief only for veteran claimants whose employers may anticipate the need for medical leave. The Act contemplates circumstances in which the need for qualifying leave arises unexpectedly. 29 C.F.R. §825.302(a)(b).
Employers face legal liability when they fire someone who takes leave for a condition that ultimately may be diagnosed as a serious health condition [under FMLA], says Ogletree Deakins attorney Maria Greco Danaher.
It appears that St. Therese’s greatest downfall was when it provided FMLA paperwork to Clinkscale instead of informing her on the spot that she was no longer employed. It clearly indicated to the circuit court that it viewed her situation as possibly FMLA-qualifying. Even if the left hand of the HR department didn’t know what the right hand was doing, it seems implausible to then turn around and terminate Clinkscale for reasons “wholly unrelated” to FMLA.
When an employee exhibits signs of severe distress and anxiety, an employer should consider itself notified of the possible need for medical leave.
Instructing your anxiety-ridden employee to take the rest of the day off for his or her own good (and the safety of those around the employee) is a sound decision, but then to hold that absence against the employee and say that she abandoned her job after she followed your instructions to go home seems to be, well, unjust.
¶234-1 What Constitutes Sufficient Employee Notice