Every HR pro’s painfully aware that employers have to be ultra-sensitive to the possibility that workers who need time off might fall under the auspices of the FMLA. But as a recent court decision shows, employers aren’t required to read employees’ minds.
That bit of good news comes in a recent federal appeals court decision. Here’s a rundown of the case:
Chrisanne Lanier worked for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as a business analyst in its Information Resources Department.
Business analysts were responsible for maintaining the computer systems at UTSW’s hospitals, which required 24-hour on-call coverage support. Accordingly, each business analyst worked a daytime shift and participated in a rotating schedule of on-call duty. Each rotation lasted for one week, and each business analyst was on call about once every 12 weeks.
During a week when she was on call, Lanier sent a text message to her boss, Tim Leary, to inform him that her father was in the emergency room and that she would be unable to work that night. Leary responded that another employee would cover Lanier’s on-call duty that evening. Another employee agreed to swap on-call duties with Lanier.
During her make-up on call rotation a couple weeks later, Lanier couldn’t be located by telephone. Confronted by her boss, she returned her laptop and pager and left the office without explanation. Leary subsequently informed Lanier he was accepting her resignation.
‘Should have known’
Lanier sued the company for interfering with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The company, she claimed, should have known by her text message concerning her father’s ER visit that she was in need of protected leave.
What’s more, she added, her boss should have inquired further since he was aware that Lanier’s father was over 90 and in poor health.
The court wasn’t buying it.
Although an employee need not use the phrase “FMLA leave,” she must give notice that is sufficient to reasonably apprise her employer that her request to take time off could fall under the FMLA, the judge wrote. An employer may have a duty to inquire further if statements made by the employee warrant it, but “the employer is not required to be clairvoyant.”
And in this case, it was unreasonable to expect Leary to know that Lanier meant to request FMLA leave based on her text message. Lanier’s only request was to be relieved of on-call duty that night.
What’s more, Lanier had taken FMLA leave previously and clearly knew the procedures for requesting it.
“No reasonable jury could conclude that the text message Lanier sent was sufficient to apprise Leary of her intent to request FMLA leave to care for her father,” the judge wrote.