Two recent federal appellate decisions highlight some of the procedural pitfalls that lurk within the federal Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA").

In Murphy v. FedEx, a decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, FedEx terminated the employment of Plaintiff Susan Murphy, a FedEx truck driver, while she was out from work following her husband's death. FedEx initially granted Murphy FMLA leave to care for her husband, who had fallen gravely ill. He then passed away, and FedEx offered Murphy three days of bereavement leave, after which Murphy's supervisor informed her that her FMLA leave had ended. Murphy told her supervisor she needed an additional 30 days off to "take care of things," and the supervisor replied that was "not a problem" and he would advise Human Resources. He did not indicate that Murphy needed to contact HR or complete any additional steps to obtain FMLA leave. However, HR denied Murphy's request for additional time, and FedEx terminated her employment for being absent from work on an unapproved absence. Murphy sued FedEx for wrongful termination and unlawful interference with her FMLA rights. FedEx defended primarily on the theory that Murphy failed to give FedEx sufficient notice that: (i) her request for additional leave may be covered by the FMLA, and (ii) that she actually suffered from a serious health condition. Murphy prevailed at trial, and FedEx appealed.

While the Eight Circuit remanded the case to trial for further proceedings, primarily based on faulty jury instructions, the court concluded that material issues of fact existed as to two key issues. First, the court concluded that it was possible for a jury to find that, when Murphy told her supervisor she needed to "take care of things" following her husband's death, coupled with the supervisor's knowledge that Murphy's husband had passed and that her mental state was impaired, Murphy placed FedEx on notice that she needed additional FMLA leave. Second, the court concluded that it was possible for a jury to conclude that Murphy reasonably relied on the supervisor's initial authorization of her request. In that regard, the court held that "an employer who makes an affirmative representation that an employee reasonably and detrimentally believed was a grant of FMLA leave can be estopped from later arguing that the employee was not in fact entitled to that leave because she did not suffer from a serious health condition."

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In Branham v. Gannett Satellite, a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Plaintiff Deborah Branham was terminated from her job as a receptionist for The Dickson Herald for excessive absenteeism. Over the course of three weeks, Branham failed to report for work based on alleged illness. When Branham first became ill, she was examined by a doctor who released her to return to work immediately. However, Branham informed management that she remained ill and unable to work. Several days later, Gannett received a medical certification form from Branham's doctor indicating that she could perform her full duty as of the day after her medical appointment and did not require medical leave. A few more days passed without Branham reporting to work, and management called her to advise that her job was in jeopardy if she did not return to work or produce medical certification of her need for FMLA leave. Branham responded that another doctor at the same clinic could "clarify her status" and her need to be absent from work. On the fifteenth day after Branham's absence from work commenced, Gannett terminated her employment. Later that same day, a nurse practitioner faxed a certification to Gannett stating that Gannett suffered from a serious health condition and could not return to work for another six weeks.

As in Murphy v. FedEx, Branham sued for wrongful termination and interference with her FMLA rights. A trial court dismissed the claims based primarily on the fact that Gannett lawfully relied upon the initial certification, which cleared Branham to return, in terminating her employment. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed and sent the case back for trial.

An employer may require an employee to provide a medical certification to support a request for FMLA leave. However, the employer must allow the employee fifteen (15) calendar days to provide the certification. The court concluded that Gannett never properly triggered Branham's duty to provide a medical certification supporting her request for leave. Specifically, no one communicated to Branham in writing the requirement to provide a medical certification, that it was due in 15 days, or the consequences of failing to return an adequate certificate.

* * * Murphy and Branham highlight the importance under the FMLA of clear and precise communication with employees regarding their rights and responsibilities when seeking a protected leave of absence, and the severe consequences of failing to comply with the unique notice and timing features of the law. The decisions further emphasize the need for employers to train managers on these requirements.