Why it matters

Employers, beware. Telling a coworker about chest pains may be sufficient notice for an employee to trigger the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a Maryland federal court has ruled. A call to ask an employee truck driver to report to dispatch woke him up. Upset, the employee complained to a manager and the two disagreed about a separate payment issue. After arriving at work and having a second interaction with the manager, the driver began to experience chest pains and shaking in his hands. Believing he might be having a heart attack—and that he was unable to drive his route from Baltimore to North Carolina—the driver asked a coworker to tell a supervisor he was leaving because of chest pains. Because his abrupt departure violated company policy, the manager recommended that the driver be terminated. Before the driver was notified of this, however, he forwarded a note from his doctor stating that he needed to take some days off work due to his symptoms. When the driver was subsequently terminated, he sued for FMLA interference and retaliation. The truck company moved for summary judgment to get the case dismissed. But the court denied the motion, finding that telling a coworker about chest pains could be sufficient notice of a need for a protected FMLA leave.

Detailed discussion

From 2002 until October 26, 2012, Randy Greene was employed as a truck driver by YRC, Inc. In 2011, Greene began receiving treatment for chronic high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

According to Greene, he was asleep when his phone rang on October 25, 2012. A supervisor was calling Greene to request that he appear at the company's Baltimore Terminal at 1 a.m. on October 26 to receive a dispatch along his regular Baltimore to Charlotte route. Although he was irritated about being woken up, Greene said he would accept the dispatch.

Greene then called the Terminal manager to complain about the call waking him up and stated that he was entitled to payment for an additional 15 minutes from a previous trip. The manager said he would talk to the supervisor about waking Greene up but said that Greene was not entitled to the additional pay demanded.

Greene arrived at the Terminal about midnight and went to speak with the manager, who refused to discuss the payment issue. Greene accused the manager of showing "hostility" and was upset by the interaction, experiencing chest pains, stomach pains and shaking hands. Although he tried to calm down—and accepted his dispatch—his conditions worsened as he tried hooking the trailer up to his truck.

Thinking he might be having a heart attack, Greene decided that he could not drive all the way to North Carolina. Feeling too ill to go in search of a supervisor, he asked a nearby coworker to inform the manager that he was having chest pains and needed to leave. Greene drove home and called the manager from the car to confirm that the coworker had delivered the message.

Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, the manager recommended that Greene be terminated for a "voluntary quit" for violating the requirement to personally notify a supervisor before leaving because of illness.

Unaware of this recommendation, Greene visited his doctor at 1:15 p.m. on October 26. Finding that the driver's blood pressure was elevated, the doctor wrote a note that Greene was having "health issues" and should be excused from work for a few days. Greene faxed the note to YRC later that afternoon.

At 4 p.m. the manager called Greene to terminate his employment. Greene filed suit alleging that YRC illegally interfered with his rights under the FMLA and retaliated against him in violation of the statute. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

YRC conceded that if a jury accepted Greene's version of the facts, it could support a finding that he was suffering from a serious health condition. "That is, he felt terrible, didn't know if he was having a heart attack, and told a coworker … to inform [the manager] that he was having chest pains and needed to leave," U.S. District Court Judge Marvin S. Garbis wrote. "Such notice, including an indication that Greene was experiencing chest pains, can be found sufficient to put YRC on inquiry notice that Greene may require FMLA leave."

And once an employee has provided at least verbal notice of a serious health condition sufficient to alert the employer to the fact that the protections of the FMLA may apply, an employer "'should inquire further to ascertain whether it is FMLA leave that is being sought and to obtain further details of this leave,'" the court said, denying YRC's motion for summary judgment.

The court also denied Greene's motion, however, finding that YRC presented evidence that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff left the job site for a reason other than a serious health condition, such as anger due to his interactions with the manager about his requested additional pay. Greene didn't seek immediate medical care and drove an hour to get home, the court noted, waiting until later in the afternoon for a doctor's visit instead of visiting the emergency room or calling 911. His coworker's testimony was also somewhat inconsistent, stating that he didn't perceive Greene to be having such a physical problem that it prevented him from going into the Terminal to speak with a supervisor.

Finding "no doubt" that genuine issues of material fact prevented summary judgment for either side, the court denied both motions, allowing the case to move forward.

To read the order in Greene v. YRC, Inc., click here.