Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Involuntary Family and Medical Leave Act in the 5th Circuit

What to do with a case that "defies the conventional pattern for FMLA claims?" Or maybe more to the point -- what would that be? In Willis v. Coca Cola Enterprises, Inc. (5th Cir. 3/31/06) pdf, this is what the Court faced:
Willis does not contend that she requested FMLA leave and that CCE then interfered with, restrained, or denied her rights under the Act. ... Rather, Willis asserts that she was placed on “involuntary leave” when her supervisor refused to permit her to return to work until she had gotten a medical release and then, while she was on this mandated FMLA leave, fired her for noncompliance with the leave policy of the company. To complicate matters, CCE denies that it ever placed Willis on involuntary FMLA leave, thereby forcing Willis to assert her FMLA rights from an unusual posture: at the time Willis stopped coming to work, she denied that she needed leave, but now, enmeshed in litigation, Willis asserts that she was on FMLA leave. (emphasis added)
A rather convoluted state of affairs, which caused the court to face a case of first impression in the circuit -- what constitutes involuntary FMLA leave and what are the parties’ rights and obligations pursuant to this type of leave? The short answer seems to be -- no different from a regular FMLA leave.

It is clear that the employer is the one that has the power to designate or not, and the burden is on the employee to provide sufficient information to demonstrate that there is a serious health condition. Here the employee merely told her supervisor that she was out sick, not enough to inform the employer she had a serious health condition. In the court's mind that was not enough, so even though she was on medical leave, she was not on FMLA leave.

After looking how the 6th and 10th circuits had dealt with similar issues, the Court concluded that even in the case of "involuntary leave" the employee still has the obligation to provide sufficient information to alert the employer of the serious health condition. As the Court noted:
This sharing of the informational burden will not work if employees, for the purposes of litigation, can later designate leave as FMLA qualifying without making a proper showing that, at the time they requested leave, they put their employer on notice that FMLA leave was necessary due to a serious medical condition.
Without pausing on a Friday afternoon to puzzle this one through, it sure seems that the Court's opinion took the long way round to get to the answer, which may have been why Judge Reavley concurred only in the judgment.


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