Why Asking for FMLA Leave Is an Interactive Process

Family, Medical, and Other Leave Discrimination
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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides unpaid protected leave to employees for covered medical or family reasons. These are important rights that employees enjoy, but they don’t come automatically. 

Employers have plenty of responsibility in ensuring their employees can take advantage of these rights. But it’s still up to the employee to do their part to show why they’re entitled to take FMLA leave. Two contrasting court cases show how things can turn out very differently based on how the employees interact with their employer.

Flores v. Dish Network

Melin Flores (Flores) was an employee for Dish Network (Dish) when she began having serious back pain and other medical issues that resulted in her having to miss work.

In November 2018, Flores experienced intense back pain, but continued to go to work. By December, the pain got so bad she could barely take care of herself. When she went to the doctor, they said she had a urinary tract infection (UTI). She was given some medications and which made her feel somewhat better. 

But it didn’t take long before she felt bad again. Flores called Dish about having to miss work because she was sick and possibly having to go to the hospital for more tests. Flores went to the doctor who said she had an ongoing UTI. From December 17 to December 20, Flores was bedridden and could only do basic tasks to take care of herself.

When Flores returned to work on December 21, she brought paperwork from her doctor with the intent of showing Dish that her recent absence was excused and should not count against her. However, Flores never got this chance.

Instead, she had a meeting with her superiors who fired her for excessive absences. She explained she was sick, had possibly passed a kidney stone and might have to go back to the hospital for surgery. At some point during this meeting, Flores provided her medical documents to Dish. However, Dish still terminated her.

After getting fired, Flores continued her medical care. She later learned she had a renal cyst and other medical conditions, including severe sepsis.  After she recovered, she sued Dish for, among other things, FMLA interference.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. Flores’ motion applied to her FMLA interference claim and the court granted it. Dish’s motion applied to all of Flores’ claims and was largely denied. But before trial, both sides reached a confidential settlement.

Watson v. Drexel University

In 2016, Lachelle Watson (Watson) worked for Drexel University (Drexel) and was diagnosed with leiomyoma. This was a medical condition that often led to painful fibroids and anemia. After the diagnosis, Watson requested FMLA leave. Drexel granted it in August 2016 and it was to last until the end of that month; it later got extended into October without issue.

Watson requested additional FMLA leave for the periods of November 2, 2016 to November 30, 2016 (First FMLA Denial) and December 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017 (Second FMLA Denial). Drexel denied those requests when Watson did not properly fill out certain documents.

In late 2017, Drexel fired Watson. She filed suit against Drexel and set out several causes of action, including FMLA interference. Drexel filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss all of Watson’s claims. The trial court granted the motion and the appeals court affirmed.

In affirming the trial court’s dismissal of Watson’s FMLA interference claim, the appeals court agreed with Drexel that Watson did not provide the necessary paperwork. Specifically, for the First FMLA Denial, Drexel asked Watson to obtain a medical recertification and provided her with a blank certification form to fill out, which she did not do. 

As for the Second FMLA Denial, Drexel made the mistakes of not explaining to Watson that she had to complete a recertification form and not providing her with a blank copy of the form. But even though Drexel soon fixed these errors, Watson still did not provide the necessary recertification form, This was even after being told that her doctor filled it out incorrectly and was given another opportunity to complete the form.

Why the Flores and Watson FMLA Claims Turned Out So Differently

To successfully bring an FMLA interference claim, a plaintiff must show the following five elements:

  1. The plaintiff was eligible for FMLA protections;
  2. The employer was covered by the FMLA;
  3. The plaintiff was entitled to FMLA leave;
  4. The plaintiff provided sufficient notice to the employer concerning plans to take FMLA leave; and
  5. The employer denied the FMLA benefits. 

In the Flores case, the FMLA interference dispute revolved around the last three elements. But the court found that Flores met these because was record was obvious that Flores had a serious medical condition that prevented her from doing her job. 

The court also concluded that it was clear that during the meeting where Dish fired her, they had sufficient notice that Flores was trying to take FMLA leave. During discovery, Dish conceded that had Flores’ recent absence been excused as FMLA leave, she would not have been fired.

Flores did everything she could to ask for her recent absence from work to be excused for FMLA reasons. By explaining why she missed work and offering her medical documents in support, she fully participated in the interactive FMLA process while Dish did not. This is a major reason why she was able to settle her case instead of having it dismissed on a motion for summary judgment.

What should have happened was that Dish should have reviewed the documents to see if they supported Flores’ need for FMLA leave. If they did not, Dish could have asked for additional information or documentation. Had Flores ignored this request for additional information, perhaps Flores would have lost her FMLA interference claim. 

The Watson case is much different because the roles are flipped in regards to the FMLA interactive process. Instead of Drexel failing to do its part, it was Watson who did not fully participate in the FMLA process.

Specifically, Watson did not complete the necessary paperwork to support her FMLA leave request. Based on court records, Watson was eligible for FMLA leave, Drexel was covered by the FMLA and Watson gave Drexel sufficient notice of her plans to take FMLA leave. 

Yet Drexel correctly concluded that Watson was not entitled to FMLA leave. And she was not entitled to FMLA leave because she did not complete the required documentation. 

The Department of Labor has promulgated regulations that tell employers how to process their employees’ FMLA leave requests. And these regulations permit employers to ask employees to have a medical professional certify the need for FMLA leave.

Summing It Up

Requesting FMLA leave is a back-and-forth process between employer and employee. When the ball is in the employer’s court and the employer drops the ball (like Dish did), the employer may be liable for FMLA interference.

But when the ball is in the employee’s court and the employee drops the ball (like Watson did), any later FMLA interference lawsuit is likely to fail as a result of the employee’s failure to participate in the FMLA leave approval process.