A nurse who was sent home by her employer’s human resources director after suffering a panic attack can pursue her interference claim under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis has ruled. Clinkscale v. St. Therese of New Hope, No. 12-1223 (8th Cir. Nov. 13, 2012). Reversing summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Eighth Circuit found that sufficient factual issues existed as to whether the employer had notice of the nurse’s FMLA-qualifying condition before determining she allegedly had abandoned her position. The Eighth Circuit has jurisdiction over Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Background

Ruby Clinkscale was a nurse in the rehabilitation unit of St. Therese of New Hope, a long-term care facility. On October 11, 2010, she was reassigned to the long-term care unit. Clinkscale told her supervisor she was apprehensive about working in a unit for which she was not trained and requested unit-specific training. Her supervisors informed her that she had “no choice” where she would work or she would not have a job. They also said she could lose her license for patient abandonment if she refused to work. Clinkscale immediately spoke to St. Therese’s Human Resources Director. During their conversation, Clinkscale exhibited signs of a panic attack: crying and shaking so severely that, at one point, she requested an ambulance. In light of Clinkscale’s distress, the HR Director instructed her to go home and told her they would work something out the next day.

Clinkscale saw her doctor the following morning. Her doctor suggested the anxiety attack had been “situationally triggered,” advised therapy, and prescribed medication. In a note addressed to St. Therese, the doctor recommended that Clinkscale take off the remainder of the week from work. Clinkscale delivered her doctor’s note to St. Therese’s HR department on October 12th and was provided FMLA forms to complete. Later that day, however, Clinkscale was informed that she had been terminated, effective October 11th, for walking off the job. On October 14th, Clinkscale’s doctor returned the FMLA forms to St. Therese, described Clinkscale as “suffering from anxiety and panic attacks,” and requested she be excused from work for one week due to her condition. 

Clinkscale subsequently sued St. Therese for interfering impermissibly with her right to take reasonable medical leave in violation of the FMLA. St. Therese moved for summary judgment. It argued that Clinkscale was not protected under the FMLA because she was not an employee when she asserted her need for leave and, in any case, she had been terminated for reasons “wholly unrelated to the FMLA.” The district court granted summary judgment in favor of St. Therese. Clinkscale appealed.

Applicable Law

The FMLA entitles an employee to 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period if the individual has a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.” When leave is needed for an unforeseeable event, notice is required “as soon as practicable,” usually within one or two business days of when the need for leave becomes known to the employee. 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(a), (b). 

To establish a claim for interference with FMLA rights, an employee must give notice to his or her employer of the need for FMLA leave. Phillips v. Matthews, 547 F.3d 905, 909 (8th Cir. 2008). “Whether an employee gave sufficient information to put his or her employer on notice that an absence may be covered by the FMLA is a question of fact for the jury.”

Interference Claim

St. Therese argued that it did not know of Clinkscale’s need for leave because her supervisors believed that she had quit before she requested leave. The appellate court rejected this argument. First, the Court pointed out, Clinkscale left St. Therese at the direction of its HR Director after she suffered an anxiety attack. Further, St. Therese admitted Clinkscale’s supervisors and the HR staff did not discuss her alleged voluntary termination until the morning of October 12th, the same day Clinkscale provided St. Therese with a doctor’s note identifying her need for medical leave. Indeed, in response to the note, HR provided Clinkscale with FMLA forms, an action inconsistent with a belief that the employee had resigned or been terminated, the Court reasoned. Accordingly, the Court concluded that factual issues remained regarding whether St. Therese was on notice of Clinkscale’s potentially FMLA-qualifying condition before it terminated her employment.

St. Therese next argued that Clinkscale was terminated for patient abandonment, not for requesting FMLA leave. The Court found this argument unpersuasive. Clinkscale’s alleged abandonment was precipitated by her anxiety attack, and her doctor characterized her panic attack on October 11th as “situationally triggered,” the Court noted. Combined with the fact that Clinkscale left the premises at the HR director’s suggestion, the Court found that St. Therese could not “reasonably claim her termination bore no relation to her FMLA-qualifying condition and leave.”

Last, St. Therese argued that it could not have known of the need for leave because Clinkscale had not previously been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The Court found this unsupported by the FMLA, which specifically contemplates circumstances in which the need for qualifying leave arises unexpectedly. To assume an employee’s previously clear medical history precluded a subsequent FMLA claim when her need for medical leave arises unexpectedly was “patently unreasonable,” the Court found. Accordingly, the Court reversed summary judgment in favor of St. Therese and returned the case to the trial court.