Did supervisor’s offhand remark amount to approval of FMLA leave?

by on February 14, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

Based on the facts presented in the scenario below, how do you think the court ruled on this employment law case?

The case
“What?” employee Devon Marchek exclaimed. “You’re firing me for absenteeism, after you approved my leave?”

“I didn’t approve anything,” supervisor Casey McHugh retorted. “I told you I’d have HR look into it. You assumed it was okay and took more time off. But HR pointed out that you’d already had two weeks of FMLA leave to attend to your husband while he was dying, and you never actually applied for more FMLA leave. So you were AWOL,” Casey said. “I’m sorry if you misunderstood.”

His exact words
“I didn’t misunderstand,” Devon said. “Let me refresh your memory. You asked if I needed any more time off before returning to work, and I said I needed 30 days to take care of things.

“You replied: ‘OK, cool, not a problem, I’ll let HR know.’ Those were your exact words.”

Signed, sealed, delivered?
“I may have said something like that, but I didn’t mean your additional leave was signed, sealed and delivered,” Casey said. “I have to go by what HR says. They say you never told us about any health condition that would require additional FMLA leave.”

“Maybe not in so many words,” Devon acknowledged. “But you knew I wasn’t able to sleep, and I was crying uncontrollably, and I couldn’t work the night shift because it reminded me of how I used to work it with Hank,” she said. “Depression is a health condition, right?”

“I’m sorry,” Casey said. “There’s nothing I can do. Clean out your desk.”

Devon sued the company for interfering with her right to FMLA leave. Did she win?

The ruling
You bet she won. A jury ruled in Devon’s favor and a federal appeals court backed up the jury verdict.

The court said Devon’s employer was aware of her serious emotional issues after her husband’s death, and in that context her comments to her supervisor added up to adequate notice of a need for FMLA leave.

And the court said supervisor Casey’s remark –- “OK, cool, no problem, I’ll let HR know” –- amounted to an “unequivocal” agreement to Devon’s taking the additional 30 FMLA days she’d requested.

That may not have been what the supervisor meant, but that’s what he said. And it obligated the company to grant the time off.

Cite: Murphy v. Fedex National LTL, Nos. 09-3473/3518, 8th Cir., 8/26/10.

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