It’s been a while since we’ve posted about a lawsuit involving the intersection of technology and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Lanier v. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, a Fifth Circuit case from last month revisits this area of law. Plaintiff was a business analyst at defendant facility, whose job required her to be on call for lengthy shifts. Then:
The week of September 1, 2010, Lanier was scheduled to be on call. But on September 2, Lanier sent a text message to [her supervisor] Leary to inform him that her father was in the emergency room and that she would be unable to be on call that night. Leary responded that another employee would cover Lanier’s on-call duty that evening.
Doesn’t sound too bad, from a legal perspective yet, does it? Later that month, Lanier was scheduled to make up that missed rotation, but did not respond to multiple pages, and so her supervisor had to fill in for her. The next day, there was something of a confrontation between her and the supervisor, during which plaintiff stated ”I’m so f****** pissed at you for what you did on my father’s heart attack,” and walked out. Her supervisor’s supervisor later “informed Lanier that he was accepting her resignation.”
Lanier sued, and a district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, so this appeal to the Fifth Circuit followed. Among the claims brought by plaintiff was one that her rights under the FMLA had been violated. Just to bring you up to speed:
The FMLA permits an employee to take up to twelve weeks of medical leave for their own serious medical condition or for the care of a family member with a serious medical condition. The FMLA prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise or attempted exercise of an employee’s right to take FMLA leave. The statute also makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or retaliate in any other manner against an individual for opposing the employer’s unlawful FMLA practices. Lanier argues that UTSW (1) interfered with her right to take leave to care for her father and (2) retaliated against her for requesting leave.
Looking first at that “interference” claim, the court lists five elements that make up a prima facie case, and one of them requires that plaintiff “gave proper notice of her intention to take FMLA leave”. The court lays out some guidelines for adequate notice:
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. This court does not apply categorical rules for the content of the notice; instead we focus on what is “practicable” based on the facts and circumstances of each individual. 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.”
In this case, the text message sent on September 2nd was a request from plaintiff “requesting to be taken off call” that night. Clearly that, alone, cannot be sufficient notice for FMLA requirements. Plaintiff’s arguments to the contrary are pretty ambitious, and not surprisingly, are not accepted by the court:
Lanier argues that Leary should have inquired further since he knew that Lanier’s father was over 90 years of age and in poor health and because she had told Leary that morning that her father was having breathing problems. It would be unreasonable to expect Leary to know that Lanier meant to request FMLA leave based on these facts. Lanier’s only request was to be relieved of on-call duty that night. Lanier had taken FMLA leave in the past and was familiar with the proper way to request it, yet she did not do so here. 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.
So, the interference argument fails, and as a result, so too does the retaliation claim. The Fifth Circuit affirm’s the district court’s decision to grant defendants summary judgment.