In a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Ninth Circuit Court in California held that an employee can affirmatively decline to use leave under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA").  However, buyer beware!  If an employee affirmatively declines to use FMLA that he/she would otherwise be entitled to, the employer may be shielded from a lawsuit if it takes an adverse employment action against the employee based on that leave.

The FMLA provides job protection to an eligible employee who takes leave (up to 12 workweeks per year) to care for the employee's spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition.  However, in Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, an employee declined to use FMLA when she took an extended leave of absence to care for her ill father.  When the employee was terminated for failing to comply with the company's absence policy, she filed a lawsuit claiming that her termination was an unlawful interference with her FMLA rights.  The Court held that the termination was lawful because the employee had expressly declined to have her time off count as FMLA leave and therefore, was not entitled to job protection.

Maria Escriba worked at a Foster Farms processing plant for 18 years.  On November 19, 2007, she met with her immediate supervisor to request two weeks vacation leave to care for her ailing father in Guatemala.  Her supervisor asked if she needed more time in Guatemala to care for her father, and Escriba responded that she did not.  The supervisor told her that if she later decided to request more than two weeks leave, she would need to visit Human Resources.  Escriba then went to the Foster Farms facility superintendent and told him she was going to Guatemala because her dad was very ill.  She told him she was using two weeks of vacation time and asked her for an additional two weeks as a "favor."  The superintendent told Escriba to send a note or documentation to Human Resources for the extra time.  He did not instruct Escriba regarding her rights and obligations under FMLA and did not take any steps to designate her time off as FMLA.  Escriba never requested any additional time from Human Resources.

Escriba then traveled to Guatemala to care for her father.  While there, she decided that returning to work after two weeks would not be practical but she failed to make contact with her employer to extend her leave.  Sixteen days after she was supposed to return to work, Escriba called her union representative who informed her that she was going to be terminated under Foster Farm's "three day no-show, no-call rule."  Under this policy, an employee is automatically terminated if absent for three work days without notifying the company or without seeking a leave of absence.  Escriba then sued Foster Farms, claiming that the company interfered with her right to take FMLA leave.

To establish a case of FMLA interference, an employee must establish that 1) he/she was eligible for FMLA protection; 2) the employer was covered by the FMLA; 3) the employee was entitled to leave under the FMLA; 4) the employee provided sufficient notice of intent to take leave; and 5) the employer denied the employee FMLA benefits to which he/she was entitled.  Here, the Court found that Escriba elected not to take FMLA leave after telling her supervisor that she only wanted vacation time and that she did not need additional time off.  She also knew that her supervisor only handled requests for vacation whereas Human Resources had handled her past fifteen requests for FMLA leave.  Moreover, Escriba had intended to take vacation time and not family leave.  Accordingly, Escriba did not express intent to take leave under FMLA.

Thus, this case demonstrates that an employee cannot have it both ways – the employee cannot decline to use FMLA (even if the leave qualifies for FMLA) and then try to hide behind FMLA protections after the fact.  Accordingly, once an employee declines to use FMLA, the employee assumes the risk of the decision.  Thus, as in this case, if an employee declines FMLA leave, and goes on an unauthorized leave of absence, the employee can be lawfully terminated (consistent with agency policies).  Because the FMLA does not require that an employee expressly ask for "FMLA leave" to fall under its protections, we recommend that the employer should inquire of the employee if it is necessary to determine whether FMLA is being sought by the employee and obtain the necessary details of the leave to be taken.