To establish a claim of interference with rights under the FMLA, an employee must ordinarily demonstrate that he or she was entitled to FMLA leave. However, a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals confirms that by affirmatively telling an employee that her leave is protected by the FMLA, an employer may waive its right to contest the employee's entitlement to leave. Murphy v. FedEx National LTL, Inc. (.pdf).

The Facts

Murphy and her husband both began employment with FedEx in 2006, when FedEx acquired their previous employer. In August 2006, Murphy's husband was hospitalized. He sought and was granted FMLA leave. Murphy also sought FMLA leave to care for her husband. Her immediate supervisor, Jeff Karnes, referred Murphy to the company's HR department. Per HR's instructions Murphy sought and obtained a medical certification from her husband's doctor confirming his need for leave. On August 31, 2006, FedEx granted Murphy leave to care for her husband.

On September 7, 2006, Murphy's husband died. The same day, Murphy called Karnes, told him of the death, and asked about employee benefits related to funeral and burial expenses. Murphy was noticeably distraught, so Karnes offered to get her the information she needed. Murphy then took three days of bereavement leave.

On September 11, Karnes contacted Murphy. He told her that her FMLA leave ended on September 7 and asked her how much more time she needed before returning to work. She said that she needed thirty days to "take care of things." Karnes told her "okay, cool, not a problem, I'll let HR know." He did not say whether Murphy needed approval from HR to take this leave. She did not seek any additional approval. Murphy later testified that she would have sought medical certification has she not believed that Karnes had approved her leave request. While she testified that at the time she was still crying constantly, could not sleep and had difficulty functioning, she did not tell Karnes or anyone else at FedEx about these symptoms.

On September 12, Karnes contacted an HR representative to inform her that Murphy had requested thirty days' leave to "put her affairs in order." HR denied that request. On September 15, Karnes called Murphy to inform her that FedEx had decided to terminate her employment.

The Lawsuit

Murphy predictably filed suit against FedEx, alleging among other things that the company interfered with her rights under the FMLA by denying her leave and terminating her employment. The case was tried to a jury. The court instructed the jury that it must find for Murphy if:

  1. Murphy was employed by FedEx;
  2. Murphy requested thirty days' leave from FedEx;
  3. FedEx represented to Murphy that it approved the request for leave, with reason to believe that Murphy would rely upon FedEx's representation; and
  4. Murphy reasonably relied upon FedEx's representation to her detriment.

The jury returned a verdict for Murphy. FedEx filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, arguing that the court had erroneously failed to instruct the jury to find in favor of FedEx unless the jury found that Murphy had placed FedEx on notice that she may have needed FMLA leave, and that she actually suffered from an FMLA-qualifying serious health condition. The court denied the motion, and FedEx appealed to the 8th Circuit.

On appeal, the 8th Circuit agreed with FedEx that the district court erred, finding that before Murphy could invoke her rights under the FMLA, it was necessary for her to demonstrate that she put FedEx on notice that she needed leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason. Accordingly, the court found that FedEx is entitled to a new trial. However, it rejected FedEx's argument that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, holding that Murphy presented sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that she needed FMLA leave. The court noted that by itself, Murphy's statement that she needed thirty days to "take care of things" would not suffice. However, the record included other facts that "taken in their totality" could be enough to support Murphy's case. Specifically, the court found that the sudden death of Murphy's husband, the fact that she was noticeably distraught, and that she had said that she was unable to work the night shift because it reminded her of her husband could be sufficient to place FedEx on notice of her mental state. Further, the court noted that Murphy's request for additional leave occurred during a brief conversation in which Karnes told her that her FMLA leave had expired and asked if she required additional leave. The court found that a jury might reasonably interpret this as a request for additional FMLA leave.

Insights for Employers

  1. This case again emphasizes the low bar for providing notice of the need for FMLA leave. Aside from the fact that she was upset by the death of her husband - which one might reasonably assume is a normal, healthy reaction to the loss of a loved one rather than a medical condition - FedEx had almost no information suggesting that Murphy might have an FMLA-qualifying serious health condition. Nevertheless, in light of cases such as this, it may be prudent for employers dealing with employees who have suffered traumatic events to take steps to determine whether the FMLA applies to any request for leave.
  2. The situation in this case may not have been as clear-cut for the HR and management personnel involved in the decision as they appear from the 8th Circuit's opinion. However, if the facts were as stated in the decision, it appears that FedEx might have avoided this lawsuit if, instead of immediately terminating Murphy's employment, it had advised her that her leave request was denied and given her a chance to come back to work or properly request an extension of her FMLA leave.
  3. This case also demonstrates the importance of properly training supervisors about how to communicate with employees regarding leave requests. Murphy's case hinged upon Karnes's statement that her request for 30 days leave would not be a problem and that he would take care of notifying HR. If supervisors do not have authority to grant leave requests, then it is important that they be instructed to clearly advise employees that they need to contact HR for approval, and not to make commitments that may later bind the company.