When is it too late to request FMLA leave? Court draws the line

Employers have to bend over backwards to make sure they’re not violating an employee’s right to job protected leave. But one federal appellate court just ruled there are limits to how far employers must bend.
As your managers hopefully know by now, an employee doesn’t actually have to mention “FMLA” when requesting leave in order to be protected by it. All an employee has to do is provide enough information for his or her manager to suspect that FMLA protections may be triggered — and from there it’s up to the manager to provide the employee with paperwork acknowledging the worker’s rights and obligations under the law.
Example: An employee’s been leaving work early on occasion (about once a week) to receive treatment for a medical condition. Then, one day, the employee requests a three-week leave of absence and doesn’t indicate it’s vacation time.
There’s enough evidence in this case to suggest the manager was given sufficient notice to suspect the leave may be FMLA protected, and the manager will want to provide the worker with a notice of his or her FMLA rights — and perhaps request a doctor’s FMLA certification.
That’s a pretty cut-and-dried example of when an employee’s leave would be protected by the FMLA — despite the employee making no mention of “FMLA leave.”

Employee resigns, then wants FMLA

Now imagine you have an employee who’s been taking intermittent FMLA leave in relation to a chronic medical condition. She’s finally released by her doctor to come back to work with no restrictions. And on her first day back, she leaves early with no notice. Then, she submits a written resignation the next day.
Do you have to at least assume the employee is entitled to additional FMLA leave before accepting her resignation?
Absolutely not, according to a recent ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Employee returned three days later

This was the position in which Nashville Electric Service recently found itself.
After working for Nashville since 2000, Bilqis Miles suffered a psychotic break in 2008 and was hospitalized for it. Over the next three years, Miles periodically took FMLA leave for treatment of her mental condition.
Then in 2011, she received clearance from her physician to return to work without any limitations.
She only lasted a few hours before leaving early and resigning — in writing — the next day.
Three days later, Miles admitted she made a mistake by resigning, and she asked for her job back.
When Nashville refused to reinstate her, she sued. Miles claimed the company violated the FMLA because it had a duty to investigate whether she needed additional FMLA leave.

4 reasons the lawsuit failed

Miles claimed that her mental health history, medical leave history and the fact that she left work early after her return from leave were all indications that she wasn’t ready to return to work and needed more FMLA leave.
In addition, she claimed that if Nashville had investigated her situation, it would’ve concluded that it should’ve put her on FMLA leave rather than accept her resignation.
But a district court ruled that Miles voluntarily resigned and Nashville had no duty under the FMLA to allow her to rescind her resignation.
Then, on appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled the only thing Miles revealed at the time of her resignation was that she no longer wanted to work at Nashville — not that she wanted or needed more leave.
The appeals court said there were four reasons to infer that Nashville wasn’t given sufficient notice to think Miles needed more FMLA leave:

  1. Miles failed to request additional leave in any form
  2. She stated she wanted to resign — a decision taht wasn’t forced on her
  3. She took the time to write a resignation letter (and she didn’t just make an off-the-cuff “I quit” remark), and
  4. She’d been cleared by her doctor to return to work without restrictions — thus, Nashville had no obligation to investigate whether she was fit for duty.

Cite: Miles v. Nashville Electric Service
This story was originally published on our sister website, HRBenefitsAlert.com.