On August 3, 2012, in Lichtenstein v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed the issue of how much information an employee must provide when notifying an employer of unforeseeable leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (“FMLA”).  By way of background, the FMLA generally entitles eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period to care for themselves or a family member with a “serious health condition,” such as a condition requiring inpatient hospital care or continuing medical treatment.  An employee only qualifies for FMLA leave if he or she provides sufficient information to permit the employer to determine whether the FMLA applies.  For unforeseeable leave, the regulations require an employee to provide this notice “as soon as practicable.”

In this case, plaintiff Jamie Lichtenstein, a psychiatric technician, telephoned her employer shortly before her shift was scheduled to begin and explained that she “was currently in the emergency room [because her] mother had been brought into the hospital via ambulance, and [Lichtenstein] would be unable to work that day.”  A few days later, Lichtenstein provided further information about her mother’s condition and requested a leave of absence but, by that time, the employer had already decided to terminate Lichtenstein’s employment for unrelated conduct pre-dating the mother’s emergency room visit.

In a lawsuit against her employer, Lichtenstein asserted FMLA interference and retaliation claims, alleging that her absence had constituted protected leave and that her employer had impermissibly considered the absence in deciding to terminate her employment.  The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, dismissing Lichtenstein’s FMLA claims.  Among other things, the district court concluded that Lichtenstein’s notice was inadequate to trigger the FMLA’s protections, because it did not include enough information for the employer to conclude that her mother “necessarily” had a serious health condition.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed, emphasizing that, “when the leave is unforeseeable, the employee’s obligation is to provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request” (internal quotation marks omitted and emphasis in original).

The Third Circuit explained that, by notifying the employer that her mother had been taken to the emergency room by ambulance, Lichtenstein did not provide enough information for the employer to conclude that her mother necessarily had a “serious health condition,” but did provide enough information for the employer to reasonably determine that her mother may have a “serious health condition” and the FMLA may, therefore, apply.  According to the Court, once the employee’s initial notice “reasonably apprises the employer that FMLA may apply, it is the employer’s burden to request additional information if necessary.”

The Lichtenstein case provides helpful guidance for employers.  With regard to the FMLA, when receiving information from an employee suggesting that his or her absence may trigger the FMLA, the employer should follow up with the employee and request additional information.  This case also acts as a reminder that, when discharging employees, an employer should be sure to document its legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons in order to minimize the risk that an unexpected development, such as unforeseeable leave, provides a basis for employees to allege that the decision was unlawful.