An employee requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may appear to be a relatively straightforward event. He or she needs time off to address a medical condition and you, the employer, will need to follow certain rules in granting it.

But, as Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Inc. shows, not every leave request is quite so clear. In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had to grapple with a question of whether an employee, who provided sufficient notice of leave, was truly qualified for FMLA protection.

Sending an e-mail

The case arose from the plaintiff’s decision to send his employer an e-mail with the subject line “Vacation Schedule.” The message stated: “Attached is my vacation schedule going forward. The dates are subject to change.” The schedule listed eleven weeks of vacation over the next two years.

After his employer denied the request, the plaintiff sent a follow-up e-mail stating that his previous message hadn’t been a request but notice of medically required time off. The plaintiff attempted to clarify that he’d been “advised by medical/health professionals” that his need to avail him- self of earned vacation time was “no longer optional.”

The following day, the two parties discussed the e-mail and the plaintiff was terminated. His employer claimed that he was fired because of insubordination and poor performance.

A week after he was terminated, the plaintiff went to his doctor and received an FMLA form which stated that he suffered from depression for which he’d received treat- ment. The doctor, however, couldn’t determine a dura- tion or frequency of incapacity because of this illness. Furthermore, the physician wasn’t notified that the plaintiff had been terminated.

Making the arguments

The plaintiff filed suit alleging that his employer had:

  1. Interfered with the exercise of his right to unpaid FMLA leave because they termi- nated him after he exercised that right, and
  2. Retaliated against him for exercising his right to FMLA leave by terminating him.

In turn, his employer argued that the plaintiff’s leave request wasn’t protected under the FMLA because it was for vacation and he didn’t have any periods of incapac- ity. The plaintiff countered that his leave was protected because he had a chronic serious health condition.

Both parties moved for summary judgment, and the lower court denied both applications. After trial, a jury found that the plaintiff’s leave request didn’t cause his termina- tion. But the jury also awarded the plaintiff damages for his termination. As a result of this inconsistent finding,  his employer made a motion for either a new trial or to remit the case to another court for a decision. The district court denied these motions, and the employer appealed.

Qualifying for protection

The Eleventh Circuit found that the district court had erred by denying the employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. It reversed and vacated the district court’s holding.

Specifically, the appellate court was unmoved by the plaintiff’s argument that he didn’t have to actually qualify for leave because he’d provided sufficient notice of said leave to his employer. The Eleventh Circuit stated that his causes of action for interference and retaliation both required the plaintiff to establish that he was, in fact,qualified for FMLA leave in the first place. Notice to an employer of unqualified leave doesn’t grant a plaintiff FMLA protection.

The court held that the plaintiff hadn’t shown that his vacation request quali- fied for FMLA protection. The act doesn’t extend its protections to leaves that are medically beneficial only because the employee in question has a chronic condition. Although the plaintiff here suffered from depression and anxiety, his requested leave wasn’t alleged to be for a period of incapacity. The plaintiff even admit- ted that his vacation wasn’t for a period of incapacity, and that he and his wife had randomly picked the dates.

Furthermore, the plaintiff’s doctor testified that he hadn’t seen the scheduled vacation dates and that he wouldn’t have certified FMLA leave for any future dates. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit determined that, because the plaintiff had failed to establish a specific connection between the vacation and either treatment or a period of illness, his vacation request didn’t qualify for FMLA protection and he was entitled to no damages.

Asking for evidence

This case makes clear that mere notice of a poten- tially qualifying leave generally won’t be enough for an employee to assert a claim of interference if the leave isn’t granted. Notice must address FMLA-protected leave; oth- erwise, any notice by an employee for vacation could trig- ger protection under the act.

Also bear in mind that you don’t have to grant leave  to an employee for a chronic condition unless the leave is specifically connected to a period of incapacity or to treatment. To help determine whether leave will qualify for FMLA protection, ask the employee for evidence that he or she will be treated for the serious condition during the leave or will be specifically incapacitated during the period in question. And, as always, consult your attorney when assessing the validity of requested leaves.