Sixth Circuit Decides Two Cases Addressing FMLA Notice Requirements

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, both employers and employees have certain notice requirements. Employers must provide notice to employees of their rights and responsibilities under the Act, and employees must provide their employer with appropriate and timely notice of their need for FMLA leave. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided two cases which dealt with some of these notice requirements.

In Walton v. Ford Motor Co., 424 F.3d 481 (6th Cir. 2005), the court addressed whether the employee gave sufficient notice to his employer of the need for FMLA leave. The plaintiff, Walton, worked for Visteon. After he injured his knee working in his yard, Walton sought treatment from Visteon's on-site medical department. Before seeking treatment, he told his supervisor only that he had twisted his knee. The medical department treated Walton but did not recommend that he take time off work. Likewise, Walton did not ask for any type of medical leave. Walton later sought treatment from his personal physician, who took him off work and referred him to a specialist. The next day, Walton telephoned Visteon's contract security personnel and told them he was "sick" and that he would return in several days. He did not contact his supervisor, the labor relations department or the medical department, nor did he provide them with any documentation justifying his absence. Walton then was seen by the specialist and was taken off work for another month. He again contacted the security personnel that Visteon contracted with and reported that he was "sick" and that he expected to return in about a month. Visteon subsequently sent Walton a letter explaining that if he did not return or report within five days, his employment would be terminated. He did not contact Visteon or provide documentation within that time frame and he was fired.

Walton then sued Visteon claiming that it interfered with his rights under the FMLA. His claim was dismissed by the trial court and that decision was upheld on appeal. The court of appeals found that Walton had failed to adequately notify Visteon of his need for leave under the FMLA. According to the court, Walton's report to his supervisor that he had twisted his knee was insufficient, as was his report to the security personnel. According to the court, neither of Walton's statements were sufficient to put Visteon on notice that he might need FMLA leave. Likewise, Walton was aware that under Visteon's procedure he should not request leave from Visteon's security firm, but he did just that. Since the security firm was not his employer, the court agreed that Visteon never received notice of Walton's need for leave and it did not violate the FMLA when it terminated his employment.

Frazier v. Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 48364 (6th Cir. Dec. 22, 2005), involved another employee who did not properly notify his employer of the need for FMLA leave. The plaintiff, Frazier, had been put on a performance improvement plan due to some attendance problems. Shortly thereafter, he complained of hand and wrist pain and requested time off. On July 26, Honda verbally requested that Frazier medically certify his leave and told him that additional written materials would be forthcoming. The written materials arrived on July 31. Included with those materials was a request that Frazier submit a medical certification within 15 days. This would give Frazier until August 14 to certify his leave. Frazier did not return the medical certification until August 15 and he was terminated.

Frazier sued under the FMLA, but his claim was dismissed. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal. It found that Frazier had been properly notified of the requirement that he submit medical certification within 15 days. It also found that the July 31 written notice extended the time frame to submit the certification from that which was provided verbally on July 26. Thus, Honda effectively gave Frazier more than 15 days to submit the certification and since he did not do so, Honda did not violate the FMLA when it terminated his employment.

Both Walton and Frazier underscore the need for employers to fully understand the various notice obligations under the FMLA and to fully communicate to employees what their obligations are when they request FMLA leave. This includes notifying employees how to request leave, to whom those requests should be made, whether medical certification will be required, and what the consequences will be if the employee fails to properly request leave or submit documentation. If the employer does not properly notify its employees of all of the various obligations, an employee's failure to meet them may be excused. Employers should also be aware that as was the case in Frazier, a written request for medical certification may extend the time within which the employee can submit medical documentation.

If you have any questions regarding FMLA issues and how they affect your company, please feel free to contact a member of our Labor and Employment Law Group or Rob Dubault at 231.727.2638 or rdubault@wnj.com.