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School District Had Adequate Notice Of Employee’s Need For FMLA Leave Through Her Communications With Her Supervisor And Her Conduct At Work
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a jury verdict of $12,000 in favor of an employee who alleged that her employer interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave. The facts are as follows:
For six years, Noemi Valdivia worked as an administrative assistant to the associate principal at a high school in Township High School District 214 (District). According to her supervisors, she was an invaluable, dependable, and meticulous employee, who received excellent performance evaluations, never received discipline, and rarely took sick days. Valdivia applied and received a promotion to serve as the administrative assistant to the principal at a different high school in the District.
Shortly after Valdivia began working in that position, she experienced worsening adverse health symptoms, including insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate, and exhaustion. These symptoms led to a dramatic change in Valdivia’s job performance. She often arrived late, cried uncontrollably at work, could not complete work tasks, refused new assignments, and left work early.
Valdivia had seven or eight conversations with her supervisor about the way her symptoms were affecting her ability to work. Valdivia also asked her supervisor for a 10-month assignment instead of her current 12-month assignment to give her some time away from work, but her supervisor denied her request. Valdivia also told her supervisor that she was considering leaving her position for medical reasons.
After about two months in the position, Valdivia resigned. Less than two weeks later, she was diagnosed with major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders and was hospitalized for four days. Valdivia filed a claim against the District for interfering with her rights under the FMLA by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave.
The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take up to twelve unpaid workweeks of leave during a twelve-month period if the employee is unable to perform the functions of her position because of a serious health condition. A serious health condition is “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves—(A) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider.” The FMLA prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s exercise or attempt to exercise rights guaranteed by the FMLA. To prevail on an FMLA-interference claim, an employee must establish the following: (1) she was eligible for FMLA protections, (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA, (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA, (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave, and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.
The District first argued that Valdivia was unable to show that she had a serious health condition during her employment because she was not diagnosed until after her resignation. However, the court found that an employee does not need to show that she was diagnosed with a serious health condition during her employment as long as the condition existed while she was employed. Here, Valdivia exhibited symptoms of a serious health condition during her employment and her medical records supported the fact that her condition did not arise for the first time on the day she was diagnosed. Therefore, the court found that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Valdivia had a serious health condition that made her unable to perform the functions of her job while she worked for the District.
Second, the District argued that Valdivia was unable to show that she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave because she did not mention the FMLA in her communications with her supervisor. However, the court found that the District had notice of Valdivia’s need for FMLA leave through her conduct and her communications with her supervisor despite the fact that she did not expressly mention the FMLA. In reaching its conclusion, the court cited its decision in Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc. (7th Cir. 2003) 328 F.3d 379, which “held that clear abnormalities in an employee’s behavior may be enough to alert the employer to a serious health condition. [citation] In such cases, ‘observable changes in an employee’s condition … present an obvious need for medical leave, thereby obviating the need for an express request for medical leave.’” The court noted that when an employer knows of the employee’s need for leave, the employee does not need to mention the FMLA or demand benefits under the FMLA.
Here, the dramatic changes to Valdivia’s work performance, Valdivia’s reports of her deteriorating mental health to her supervisor on numerous occasions, Valdivia’s requests for an accommodation in the form of a 10-month rather than a 12-month position, and Valdivia’s statements that she was incapable of accepting a new work assignment collectively indicated to her supervisor and the District that Valdivia needed FMLA leave. Accordingly, the court upheld the jury’s finding that Valdivia’s notice to the District was adequate.
Valdivia v. Township High School District 214 (7th Cir. 2019) 942 F.3d 395.
While this case is not binding in California, it does clearly reiterate the important point that employees need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) or even mention these statutes to be entitled to leave under either act. For specific questions, please consult with legal counsel.