Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period. The FMLA specifically prohibits employers from interfering with an employee’s attempt to exercise his or her rights under that Act. In order to exercise those rights on the basis of an employee’s own “serious medical condition,” the employee must provide notice to the employer of the seriousness of the health condition that forms the basis of the leave request. Recently, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that calling in sick, without providing additional information, does not provide sufficient notice of a “serious health condition” under the FMLA. De la Rama v. Illinois Dept. of Human Services, No. 07-1156 (7th Cir., Sept. 2, 2008).

Elizabeth de la Rama, a Filipino-American, worked as a registered nurse at a Mental Health Center, run by the Illinois Department of Human Services for mentally ill adults. In 2004, de la Rama called in sick for the period from July 19 through August 19. At one point during that period, she verbally informed her supervisor that she was suffering from back pain, and needed to take a week off. On July 27, she provided a doctor’s note that stated that she was under a doctor’s care and could not return to work until August 10. At that point, her employer explained that in order to request medical leave, de la Rama would have to submit a written request and complete certain written forms. Although de la Rama continued to submit doctor’s notes requesting time off, those notes did not state her medical condition, nor describe its severity, and de la Rama did not complete the required forms requesting medical leave during this period. In addition, although she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in early August, de la Rama did not inform her employer of the diagnosis at that time.

On October 4, 2004, de la Rama submitted the required forms, explaining that she suffered from fibromyalgia and a herniated disk. The Center retroactively granted FMLA leave to de la Rama, beginning on September 2. De la Rama returned to work on January 3, 2005, after 17 weeks of medical leave. At that point, de la Rama’s record reflected 24 days of “unauthorized absence” (UA) for July and August, and future absences would have triggered a disciplinary proceeding against her.

De la Rama pursued a grievance in order to remove the UAs from her employment record. At a hearing, management and the union agreed that the UAs would remain on de la Rama’s record, but that those absences never would be used in any disciplinary proceedings against her. De la Rama subsequently filed a lawsuit, including a claim of interference with her FMLA rights. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed that decision.

The appellate court found that de la Rama had provided insufficient notice to alert her employer of a “serious medical condition” until October 2004, when the leave was granted. When de la Rama called in sick in July and August, she did not indicate that she suffered from a condition that would require an extended leave, and did not provide documentation of the fibromyalgia until October. The fact that the leave was granted once documentation of the serious medical condition was provided undercut de la Rama’s argument that her employer interfered with her ability to exercise her rights under the FMLA.

An employee may be excused from expressing the need for medical leave when circumstances themselves provide the employer with sufficient notice of the need for extended leave, for instance, when an employee’s family calls from the emergency room to inform employer of a serious auto accident. But - in the words of the Seventh Circuit - the 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.” Employers should not interpret this case as license to step outside of the parameters of the FMLA, which requires them to review medical information provided by employees, and to grant leave when appropriate. But it reminds employers that they are entitled to certain information from employees in order to make a full and fair decision with respect to the leave requested.