The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has re-emphasized that an employer normally has no obligation to conduct its own investigation to explore an employee's eligibility to take leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Instead, employers can generally require that employees provide information substantiating their FMLA eligibility.
The opinion, Delarama v. Illinois Department of Human Services, involved a plaintiff who called in sick from July 19, 2004, through August 19, 2004. During this time she did not inform her employer of the nature of her medical condition or its severity. Instead, she submitted vague notes from physicians stating that she was "ill" and under "medical care."
In October 2004, the plaintiff finally submitted FMLA paperwork stating that she suffered from fibromyalgia and a herniated disk and would need to miss work for the rest of the year. Her employer retroactively gave her FMLA time starting on her last sick day, which was September 2, 2004. The employer characterized the time that the plaintiff missed in July and August 2004 as "unauthorized absences" which would remain on her record but not (per agreement following a grievance hearing) subject the plaintiff to discipline. Because the employer refused to make the plaintiff's FMLA time retroactive to July 2004, the plaintiff sued, claiming, among other things, interference with her leave rights.
The Seventh Circuit found that the employer had no obligation to characterize the plaintiff's time off in July and August 2004 as FMLA leave time. According to the court, simply "[c]alling in sick" or even providing a doctor's note that "does not convey the seriousness of [the plaintiff's] medical condition" does not give an employer sufficient notice of an employee's intent to take leave under the FMLA. The court did note that the plaintiff was ultimately allowed a total of 17 weeks of leave, which was five more than the law requires, notwithstanding the classification of July 19 through August 19 as unauthorized absence.
Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that she should be excused from the requirement to notify her employer of her need for medical leave because she had been taken from work in an ambulance on an occasion approximately one month before she started calling in sick. The court rejected that reasoning, saying it "does not wash." The court observed that "[t]he FMLA does not require employers to play Sherlock Holmes, scanning an employee's work history for clues as to the undisclosed, true reason for an employee's absence." The opinion serves as a reminder that employers can require employees to give reasonable notice of serious health conditions before granting FMLA time. The court did remind employers that if an employee displays a sudden, dramatic change in work performance or physical appearance, that may be enough to put the employer on notice that the employee has an FMLA-qualifying serious health condition.