Gienapp v. Harbor Crest, 7th Cir., No. 14-1053.

An employee did not fail to provide essential information regarding the duration of her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when the employee did not herself know how long the leave would be, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

In January 2011, Suzan Gienapp, who worked for Harbor Crest Nursing Home, informed her manager that she needed time off to care for her adult daughter, who was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. Gienapp mailed an FMLA form to Harbor Crest but did not state in the form when she expected to return to work.

A physician’s statement on the FMLA form indicated that the daughter’s recovery was uncertain and that if she did recover, she would require assistance through at least July 2011—well beyond the 12 weeks of leave provided for under the FMLA. Even though Gienapp periodically phoned Harbor Crest during her leave, the employer assumed, based on the physician’s statement, that Gienapp would not return by the end of her 12 weeks of FMLA leave and hired a replacement. When Gienapp reported for work in late March, Harbor Crest told her that she no longer had a job. Gienapp sued.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Harbor Crest, ruling that Gienapp had forfeited her FMLA rights by not stating exactly how much leave she would take. The 7th Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision. The circuit court distinguished between foreseeable and unforeseeable leave. Because Gienapp’s daughter could die soon, which would permit Gienapp to return to work early, or the daughter could live longer and require additional care, Gienapp’s situation was one constituting unforeseeable leave. Unforeseeable leave “does not require employees to tell employers how much leave they need, if they do not know yet themselves,” the court stated.

Professional Pointer

Requiring regular updates from employees on leave is essential. Because the subject of telephone conversations can easily be disputed, the better practice is to require written updates.

Published on the SHRM website, 9/24/14