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Court Stresses Need for Formality in Requests for FMLA Leave

Today’s world of instant communication has its advantages and drawbacks. It’s easier than ever to communicate with others. It’s so easy that many people are becoming too casual in their business communication.

Plain%20English%20Word%20Cloud%2033710367-001.jpgConsider the case of Chrisanne Lanier, a business analyst at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Like the other workers in her department, Lanier worked a daily shift and was also expected to be on-call at all hours once every 12 weeks. However, during one of her on-call weeks, Lanier’s elderly father was hospitalized, prompting her to send her supervisor a text message. The text outlined the situation and stated that Lanier could not be on-call that night. Lanier’s supervisor agreed to find another employee to cover the shift and that Lanier could make up the missed shift later.

When it was time for Lanier’s makeup shift, her supervisor could not reach her. Later, the supervisor confronted Lanier about her apparent absence. Lanier simply returned her laptop and pager, leaving without an explanation. The supervisor asked for Lanier’s resignation, but Lanier quickly filed a lawsuit alleging that her supervisor should have known that her request for leave was protected under FMLA.

In a summary judgment decision, a federal appeals court found in favor of Lanier’s former employer. Essentially, the court found that the employer would have had to be “clairvoyant” to have interpreted Lanier’s text as a request for FMLA protection. Moreover, the court’s understanding that Lanier had requested and received FMLA leave in the past demonstrated that she knew how to use the system and should have been able to effectively do so in this instance had she intended to do so.

Although the court’s finding (available HERE)notes that the employee does not have to use the words “FMLA leave” in order to be eligible or considered for eligibility, it does stress the importance of providing adequate, reasonable notice. A text message may be a quick and easy form of communication, but it is also an informal and flawed one. With business communications, it is sometimes best to rely on an old fashioned phone call or meeting.

Sylvester, Oppenheim & Linde represents businesses and their owners in most types of litigation. If your business has a legal problem, contact Richard Oppenheim directly for a prompt, no charge initial consultation. You may use the contact form in the left column or call 818-461-8500.