- An employee's disclosure of depression to her employer was enough to put it on notice that she could have qualified for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protections, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Hannah P. v. Daniel Coats, Director of the Office of National Intelligence, No. 17-1943 (4th Cir. Feb. 19, 2019)).
- Hannah P., an individual with depression, worked as a temporary operations analyst for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She was temporarily given a high-stress assignment coordinating executive responses to Edward Snowden's unauthorized disclosures, and the assignment came with a flexible schedule to accommodate the required long hours, weekend work and tight deadlines. When that assignment ended, Hannah continued to work an erratic schedule. The employer created an attendance plan with her but she failed to adhere to it; the employer then referred her to its employee assistance program (EAP). Hannah responded that her psychiatrist had recommended she take four weeks of medical leave, but her supervisors insisted that she would need to meet with the EAP before they could approve her request. She complied, but later requested leave again, and the employer approved it.
- Hannah sued, alleging various claims, including FMLA interference because, she said, she would have structured her leave differently had it been approved when she first requested it. The district court concluded that her depression disclosure was not sufficient to put the employer on notice that she could have qualified for FMLA protections, but the appeals court disagreed. "A reasonable jury could find that Hannah's disclosure of her depression and her ... request for psychiatrist-recommended leave was sufficient to trigger [the employer's] responsibility to inquire further about whether Hannah was seeking FMLA leave," the 4th Circuit said, reviving her suit.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to chose among any effective accommodation, the FMLA does not. Employees generally must be permitted to take FMLA leave to which they are entitled, and the law prohibits employers from interfering with that right.
Courts have found FMLA interference in a variety of recent cases. Last year, a court denied summary judgment for an employer that denied an employee's request for intermittent leave and instead placed him on continuous leave, for example. But interference can extend beyond leave approvals, too: An employer interfered with an employee's FMLA rights when its leave administrator delayed his return to work by a month, a federal district court said recently, granting summary judgment for the plaintiff.
HR professionals may need to train managers on the FMLA's requirements, and at least equip them with the ability to recognize requests, escalate them to HR and avoid any statements or actions that could discourage an employee from taking leave. Being on the front line is no excuse for misunderstanding the FMLA, Jeff Nowak, now a shareholder at Littler Mendelson, said during a recent conference presentation, adding that courts are specifically asking employers why they aren't training their managers.