Family Medical Leave Case Summary

ELIZABETH DE LA RAMA v. ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time away from their job without fear of termination or penalty from their employer.

For an employee to be eligible to take leave, they must inform their employer that they have a serious medical condition that could qualify under FMLA. Simply calling in sick for a number of days is not enough for a prolonged absence to be protected by the law – as was shown in the 2008 case De la Rama v. Illinois Dept. of Human Services.

Case Background

Elizabeth de la Rama was a health care worker at Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, an Illinois Department of Human Services-run facility. According to the department’s attendance policy, de la Rama had 12 sick days per year, which she earned at a rate of one per month.

De la Rama called in sick from July 19 through August 19 in 2004. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in August but would not inform her employer about her condition until much later.

At one point during her absence, she showed up at the mental health facility to attend a coworker's retirement party. At the party, she told her manager that she was suffering from back problems and still needed more time off. Her manager said they would discuss the matter later, but eventually left without doing so.

On July 27, de la Rama turned in a doctor’s note to Chicago-Read stated she was under a doctor’s care and could not come back until August 10. At that point, her company explained that in order to ask for medical leave, she would have to submit certain written forms pertaining to an official request. Although de la Rama had supplied doctor’s notes, those notes neither stated her medical problem nor identified its seriousness. She also did not finish the essential FMLA forms at that time, nor notify her company of the fibromyalgia diagnosis.

On October 4, 2004, de la Rama finally submitted the FMLA forms, outlining that she had fibromyalgia and a herniated disk. Her employer then retroactively provided FMLA up until her last sick day on September 2. De la Rama would eventually go back to work on January 3, 2005, after missing 17 weeks of work.

When she came back, de la Rama’s record showed 24 days of “unauthorized absence” for July and August, and she was told that additional absences would induce a disciplinary action against her.

De la Rama filed a grievance with her union to expunge the absences from her employment record. At the grievance hearing, management and the union decided that the absences would stay on de la Rama’s record, but would never be used against her. De la Rama disagreed with the decision and filed a lawsuit, including a claim that her FMLA rights were interfered with. However, the district court granted summary judgment to the employer.

The Appeal

The appellate court held that de la Rama had supplied insufficient notice to alert her company of a “serious medical condition” until October 2004, when the leave was given. When de la Rama called in during July and August, she did not reveal that she suffered from a condition that could lead to a prolonged absence. She also did not supply paperwork mentioning fibromyalgia until October, the court said.

De la Rama argued that her repeated call-ins and regular absences should have been enough for her employer to realize that she suffered from a serious medical condition. To back up her point, she cited a March 2004 incident in which she had to be rushed to the hospital from her workplace.

However, the court found that this circumstance and ‘evidence’ were not enough and did not qualify as a proper notice that an absence could qualify under FMLA. The federal law does not require employers to “play Sherlock Holmes” and study an employee’s records to determine the nature of absences, the court stated.

The court said that because leave was granted once paperwork of the substantial medical condition was supplied, de la Rama’s assertion that her rights under FMLA were interfered with was not valid. The court also noted that de la Rama was permitted to take 17 weeks of leave, five more than the 12 weeks afforded under the law.
“We find it difficult to see how the (Chicago-Read) interfered with her entitlement to leave at all,” the court wrote in its decision.

A worker may be forgiven from articulating the need for medical leave when something about the situation offers sufficient notice of the requirement for extended leave. For example, when a worker's family calls the employer from the hospital after a severe auto accident.

Case Takeaway

Companies should not read this case as permit to step beyond the parameters of the FMLA, which calls for them to evaluate medical data supplied by workers, and to allow leave when appropriate. However, it reminds companies that they can ask for certain details from workers in order to generate a full and fair determination on the FMLA leave being asked for.

When a worker thinks they might need time off for an FMLA qualifying situation, they need to notify their employer at least 30 days ahead of the leave period. If the worker needs leave for surgery or recovery from surgery, they should make every attempt to schedule the operation for a time that would least disrupt business operations.

If the need for leave is caused by a sudden injury or illness, the employer should be told as soon as possible. If the employee does not notify his or her company in a reasonable time frame, the employer can deny FMLA leave.

After getting a request for leave, an employer must respond within five business days, regardless of whether the decision is made to accept or deny the request. If a request is denied, the employer must give the reason behind its decision.

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