Imagine you have an employee who is out three weeks on a medical leave protected by the FMLA. The employee suffers from a serious mental condition (or some other chronic condition), which has required her to take FMLA protected leaves in the past. The employee is medically released to return to work without restrictions and returns to work. Then, on her first day back at work, she unexpectedly leaves work early. The next day she says she is not returning to work and submits a written resignation to that effect. However, three days later the employee wants to return to work claiming the resignation was a mistake, and she really needed additional FMLA leave. Do you have to reinstate the employee or face potential liability under the FMLA? In other words, can an employer rely on what the employee says (“I want to quit”) or must it investigate whether the employee wants and/or is eligible for additional FMLA protected leave?
A federal appellate court recently addressed this very issue. The employee, who suffered from a history of psychotic breaks, argued that her employer violated the FMLA because it had a duty to investigate whether she needed additional FMLA leave based on her mental health history, medical leave history, and uncharacteristic behavior pertaining to her leaving work early and her resignation. She further argued that if the employer had investigated, it would have placed her on medical leave rather than accepted her resignation. Rejecting these arguments, the court sided with the employer, who asserted it was entitled to rely on the employee’s statement that she wanted to quit, that there was no FMLA violation.
Although employees are not required to expressly mention the FMLA when requesting protected leave, they must provide sufficient information so that the employer can reasonably conclude that he/she is requesting leave that may be protected by the FMLA. If the employee provides sufficient notice, only then does an employer have a duty to inquire further about whether the employee suffered from a “serious health” condition entitling the employee to FMLA protection.
Against this background, the court concluded that the employer was not put on sufficient notice because 1) the employee failed to request additional leave; 2) she stated that she wanted to quit and that her decision was not coerced; and 3) she submitted a written resignation. The court also stated that the employer was under no duty to inquire whether the employee was fit for work because she had been previously medically cleared to return without restrictions.
While questions of whether an employee has provided sufficient notice to an employer to trigger FMLA obligations will likely remain an area of practical and legal challenge, the recent decision gives employers some confidence that they can take employees at their word if they resign for reasons or under circumstances that do not suggest a need for protected FMLA leave.