Saturday, March 19, 2011

7th Circuit Provides Further Guidance Regarding an Employee's Obligation to Provide Notice of FMLA Leave

A sales representative, Robert Righi, at a company in Illinois, SMC Corp., was at a mandatory training seminar in Indiana when he suddenly learned that his mother had a medical emergency. In response, as anyone would do when they learn such information, Righi immediately left the seminar to attend to his ailing mother. Because Righi knew he couldn't just leave his job without notice lest he be terminated, he emailed his supervisor the next day and said he needed “the next couple days off” to make arrangements for his mother’s care; he said in his e-mail that he had vacation time available or “could apply for the family care act, which I do not want to do at this time.” However, after that email, Righi’s supervisor then tried for more than a week to reach him by telephone to clarify his request for leave. Righi did not return these calls or otherwise contact his employer. When he finally returned to work nine days after leaving the training session, he was fired for violating SMC’s leave policy. Righi then filed a complaint under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.

At the district court level, summary judgment was granted for the employer on the grounds that (1) Righi was not entitled to FMLA protection because his e-mail specifically disavowed any intent to use FMLA leave; and (2) even assuming Righi’s e-mail invoked the FMLA, he failed to notify SMC of his anticipated return-to-work date—as required by company policy and applicable FMLA regulations—and he ignored his supervisor’s repeated phone calls seeking more information about his leave request. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed as to the second ground only.

The 7th Circuit found that the email, though rather vague and informal, did allow for an inference that he was leaving at least some room to change his mind and use FMLA leave rather than vacation time to cover his absence. But, the court noted, the FMLA regulations place the burden on the employee to notify the employer of an anticipated leave amount in unforeseeable circumstances "as soon as practicable." Thus, what carried the day for the employer is the fact that an employer is entitled to enforce compliance with its “usual and customary notice and procedural requirements” regarding FMLA leave. Id. § 825.302(d) (2007). Because Righi failed to comply with the applicable regulatory and workplace requirements for family leave, his termination did not violate the FMLA, the court ruled.

The lesson to be learned from this case is though the FMLA's notice requirement is somewhat minimal, an employee still must adhere to some formal requirements in order to keep their job. While the law recongizes the reality surrounding emergency leaves requests like Righi's, the law also recognizes an employer's right to be informed of an employee's leave length and status. If you are unsure of your employer's leave policy, always err on the side of keeping in touch with your employer and don't assume you're 100% protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The case is Righi v. SMC Corporation of America, No. 09-1775.

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