On November 12, 2019, in Valdivia v. Township High School District 214 the Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld a jury verdict against the district for its interference with administrative assistant Noemi Valdivia’s FMLA rights. The district’s unlawful interference took a common, and avoidable form – Valdivia’s supervisor, Principal Angela Sisi, failed to tell Valdivia about her FMLA rights after Sisi noticed Valdivia exhibiting signs of mental deterioration and difficulty working.
By its ruling, the court offers several timely FMLA lessons for the holiday season and beyond.
Employees May Be Entitled to FMLA Before Ever Seeing a Doctor
Often employers falsely believe that an employee’s FMLA rights, in connection with their personal ailments, don’t trigger until they seek medical treatment. This may stem from the language in the FMLA statute itself.
The FMLA provides that an employee is entitled to FMLA leave if they are afflicted with a “serious health condition” and that condition makes them unable to perform the essential functions of their job. The FMLA defines a “serious health condition” to be 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.”
Shortly after she left her job, while she was experiencing symptoms identical to those she had described to her boss, Valdivia was hospitalized for four days. “Extrapolating from that hospitalization,” the court wrote, “the jury could conclude that while Valdivia was employed by the district, she had a “mental condition” that involved “inpatient care in a hospital.” The court also concluded that the jury was justified in concluding the same condition prevented her from performing her job before her resignation.
In Valdivia, for instance, the court held that Valdivia’s conduct alone, all of which emerged suddenly after years of sterling work performance and included profuse crying, late arrivals, early departures and inability to finish tasks, could have put her employer on notice of her need for FMLA. She also told her manager repeatedly that she was feeling overwhelmed and confused, had lost weight, was not able to sleep, was not hungry and didn’t know what was happening to her.
The FMLA has been in effect for more than 25 years, yet it remains all too common for managers to be unaware of their obligation to watch for, and respond in time to, signs that employees need leave. This problem is often worse where employers outsource the leave administration process to third parties. Outsourcing this vital function can lead managers to assume that leave administration is no longer their responsibility.
Until employers regularly train managers on their FMLA responsibilities, cases like Valdivia are likely to reoccur.
Never miss an update from Savine Employment Law, Ltd! Subscribe to our blog by clicking the feed icon next to our social icons. You must have a feed reader installed on your browser. We like feedly. Or, join the conversation on social media through our presence on LinkedIN, Facebook and Twitter.
Gary Savine is an Illinois employment lawyer and founder of Savine Employment Law, Ltd. in Chicago. Gary counsels employers and provides workplace training on various employment laws.
Photocredit: © Can Stock Photo / lisafx