The Importance of Documentation With Respect to Employee FMLA Claims

The FMLA provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year.  It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during leave.  Employers with 50 or more employees must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for certain qualifying reasons (including the birth and care of a newborn; adoption of a child; care for immediate family member with a serious health condition; or the employees inability to work because of a serious health condition).

Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees with 75 miles.  For a more complete overview, check out the Department of Labor's FMLA website.

As with any matter, documentation is key.  In the sphere of employee-employer relations, it can often prove dispositive.   The National Law Review recently discussed the importance of documentation in a variety of areas when dealing with Family & Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") requests from employees.  Reviewing a successful summary judgment motion of an employer faced with FMLA claims from a former employee, an Illinois court recently held that (1) the employee failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between the firing and his request for FMLA leave, and (2) that the denial of his FMLA leave was justified based on relevant documentation.  Davidson v. Evergreen Park Community High School District 231, 2017 US LEXIS 77724 (N.D. Ill. 2017).

The former employee alleged that he was fired for using FMLA leave, and that his employer had unlawfully denied him such leave as required by the FMLA.  The employer was able to demonstrate that the employee was placed on a Performance Development Plan in 2013 after receiving negative feedback on a yearly evaluation.  After the employee failed to improve, the employer terminated his employment.

The judge in the case, while noting that the employee was engaged in a protected activity by taking FMLA leave, and that he suffered an adverse employment action by being terminated, the court ultimately held that the employee had failed to establish a causal connection between his termination and his FMLA leave.  Moreover, the judge declined to find that the performance reviews were "pretextual."  Most telling according to the court, was the fact that the remediation plan instituted by his employer had been created five months prior to the employee seeking FMLA leave.

Additionally, with respect to the employee's claim that he was unlawfully denied FMLA leave, the court found that his failure to provide his employer with sufficient specific information with respect to his wife's medical condition, diagnosis, or amount of time that he would have required to take off from work in order to care for her.  "While an employee is entitled to FMLA leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition, he must alert his employer to the seriousness of the condition when requesting leave.  Merely contacting the employer about illness-related absences does not adequately communicate the serious of the medical condition."  The failure to put his employer on notice of this information was fatal to the employee's claims.

As demonstrated by this case, employee performance reviews and remediation plans are important tools to be utilized by employers, and documentation of every employee related decision or issue is critically important.  In the sphere of FMLA requests, an employer should carefully review each request, utilizing the services of appropriate legal counsel, in order to determine whether such request satisfied the "serious health condition" or other relevant prongs under the FMLA.  To the extent the request does not satisfy that standard, the employer should request additional information from the employee.  Taking these steps will prove worthwhile for any employer.

If you have questions regarding FMLA requests, or other employer-employee relations inquiries, please contact the Law Offices of Kent Petry today!