Tina Wallace worked for FedEx Corporation for 21 years. Wallace suffered from temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) which resulted in severe headaches, facial pain, chest pains, significant weight loss, and sleeping problems. In July 2007, Wallace began arriving at work late. Wallace's supervisor stressed the importance of arriving to work on time. However, Wallace's health and attendance problems worsened after her doctor adjusted her prescription medications.
After Wallace continued to arrive to work late, her supervisor gave her a written counseling and met with her. Wallace said she had trouble getting her child off to school and also explained that she was having difficulty because her doctor adjusted her medication. Wallace's supervisor said she could (1) choose to comply with the policy, (2) consider taking a period of time for medical leave, or (3) elect not to comply and suffer the consequences of progressive discipline.
Wallace's doctor then recommended that Wallace take off two weeks of work due to her medical conditions. The doctor also wrote that "she will then be reassessed." Wallace delivered her doctor's letter to her supervisor and then met with her supervisor and an attorney from FedEx. The supervisor gave Wallace several unmarked and unsigned Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) forms and the attorney told Wallace to return the paperwork within 15 days. Wallace's doctor filled out the necessary FMLA certification, and recommended that Wallace take an additional three weeks of leave. However, Wallace never delivered the certification and doctor's letter to FedEx. When Wallace's original two weeks of leave ended on August 30, Wallace failed to return to work, and her supervisor could not get in touch with Wallace despite numerous attempts. The supervisor again failed to reach Wallace on August 31. Wallace left a voicemail for someone at FedEx on September 4, stating that she was on her way to have ear surgery. That same day, Wallace's supervisor drafted a termination letter. Wallace received the letter on September 5.
Wallace filed suit alleging that FedEx violated the FMLA by terminating her employment. The jury found that Wallace suffered from a serious health condition that made her unable to perform the functions of her position, that she gave FedEx adequate notice of her intent to take FMLA leave, that FedEx failed to give her written notice of her obligations to timely provide sufficient medical certification and the consequences of failing to do so, and that "but for" FedEx's failure to provide written notice, Wallace would have timely provided the information. The jury awarded Wallace $173,000.
FedEx filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law and a request for a remittance of the compensatory damages award. The court denied the motion, but reduced the award of damages to approximately $91,000. Both parties appealed. Wallace also appealed some of the district court's previous rulings, but the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit refused to address them for procedural reasons.
An employee alleging that her employer interfered with her FMLA rights must prove that she was an eligible employee, the defendant was an employer as defined under the FMLA, she was entitled to leave, she gave her employer notice, the employer denied or interfered with the employee's FMLA benefits, and the employee was harmed. The employer is not liable if it can show that it had a legitimate reason unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights for engaging in the challenged conduct.
FedEx argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of FMLA liability because no reasonable juror could find that Wallace provided notice of her intention to take FMLA leave. Specifically, it focused on Wallace's failure to return the medical certification form or to indicate that she desired leave beyond August 29. However, the Court clarified that the relevant question is whether Wallace provided FedEx with notice that she needed FMLA leave, not whether Wallace provided notice that she needed a certain amount of FMLA leave. Wallace provided her supervisor a doctor's note indicating that she had a serious medical condition requiring her to take leave from work. Wallace's supervisor understood that she needed FMLA leave as evidenced by the fact that he discussed the FMLA with in-house counsel and provided Wallace with FMLA paperwork. Therefore, a reasonable juror could conclude that Wallace provided FedEx with sufficient notice.
FedEx also argued that it could not be liable for violating the FMLA because no reasonable juror could find that FedEx interfered with Wallace's leave rights. Under the Department of Labor regulations, an employer may request in writing that an employee provide medical certification that she is suffering from a serious medical condition. If the employee never produces the certification, the leave is not FMLA leave. However, when the employer requests certification, it must advise the employee of the anticipated consequences of the employee's failure to provide adequate certification. While Wallace was orally notified that she needed to return the certification within 15 days, she was not given written notice of the deadline, nor was she notified of the consequences of failing to submit the certification. Thus, the Court held that a reasonable jury could have found that FedEx failed to comply with the regulations and interfered with Wallace's FMLA rights when it terminated her employment.
FedEx also argued that it could not be liable for violating the FMLA because FedEx had a legitimate reason for terminating Wallace's employment. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that Wallace's failure to report for work on August 30 and 31, and her subsequent termination, were the direct result of failing to perfect her FMLA leave, which was the direct result of FedEx failing to fulfill its FMLA responsibilities. Wallace's failure to report for work could not be viewed as an independent reason justifying discipline. The Court also rejected FedEx's argument that the jury could not have reasonably found that Wallace would have provided medical certification if FedEx had not failed to provide written notice regarding Wallace's obligations to provide medical certification and the consequences of not doing so. The Court found that a jury could have credited Wallace's testimony that she would have returned the form if she had known the consequences of not returning the form. Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's denial of FedEx's motion for judgment as a matter of law.
This case was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, and is not binding on the Ninth Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit could view it as persuasive authority if faced with a similar issue.
The case illustrates some of the intricacies within the FMLA and the importance of understanding the myriad of requirements the FMLA imposes. For example, the federal regulation at issue in this case, 29 C.F.R. 825.305, states in subdivision (d) that "[a]t the time the employer requests certification, the employer must also advise an employee of the anticipated consequences of an employee's failure to provide adequate certification." While FedEx believed it was sufficient to simply notify the employee when the certification was to be returned to the employer, it did not advise Wallace of the consequences for failing to do so. Though the regulation does not require that an employer provide notice of the anticipated consequences in writing, we recommend that employers provide this information in writing so as to preempt any disputes over what information the employer provided the employee.
Wallace v. FedEx Corp. (6th Cir. 2014) __ F.3d __ [2014 WL 4116484].