Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Eleventh Circuit Finds Depressed Employee's Leave Request Did Not Qualify as Protected FMLA Leave

It is common knowledge there are no magic words required for an eligible employee to make a valid request for FMLA leave.  But what happens when an employee makes a vague request?  The Eleventh Circuit answered this question in Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Inc. et al., No. 13-10298 (11th Cir. Mar. 20, 2014).  

Hurley, an executive, sent the CEO an e-mail that included a list of eleven weeks of vacation over a two year period.  The executive denied the request and asked to schedule a meeting to discuss the e-mail.  In response, Hurley sent another e-mail to the executive that said the vacation request "was not a request it was a schedule…I have been advised by my medical health/health professionals that my need to avail myself of vacation time that I have earned is no longer optional."  

The next day, the two met, and the executive terminated Hurley for insubordination and poor performance.   A week after Hurley's discharge, he visited his health care provider to secure FMLA paperwork, which reflected he did suffer from depression, but the duration and frequency of any incapacity was unknown.

Hurley filed suit alleging FMLA interference and retaliation, and the claims proceeded to trial, where he was awarded substantial damages.  The company appealed.

The Court's opinion addressed two important issues.  First, the company argued Hurley's requested leave did not qualify as protected FMLA leave; therefore, he could not maintain a valid interference claim.  The Court agreed, finding that Hurley's notice of the need for leave was sufficient, but that notice is only relevant to FMLA leave if the leave is protected.  Hurley admitted his leave (vacation) was not for a period of incapacity, or for treatment for such incapacity, and he could not predict any period of incapacity from his condition.  For these reasons, his leave request was not protected, and his interference claim failed.

Second, the Court rejected Hurley's argument that he only needed to provide notice of potentially qualifying FMLA leave, noting that "[o]therwise, the FMLA would apply to every leave request."

 This decision demonstrates that employees continue to test the boundaries of the FMLA.