August 31, 2010

Supervisor’s “Cool” FMLA comment lands FedEx in hot water

Posted in Family and Medical Leave Act, Leaves of Absence tagged , , , , , , at 7:32 am by Tom Jacobson

When FedEx employee Susan Murphy’s husband was hospitalized, she requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to help him through his serious health condition.  After she followed the company’s procedures, FedEx granted her request.

Sadly, Murphy’s husband died a short time later.  She became distraught and needed more time off.  Her supervisor, Jeff Karnes, reminded her that her FMLA leave had ended, but he also asked how much more time she would need before returning to work.  Murphy said thirty days, and Karnes responded, “Okay, cool, not a problem.  I’ll let HR know.”  Without following any of the company’s procedures for extending her FMLA leave, Murphy continued her leave.  However, the company later denied Murphy’s request and fired her.

Murphy sued FedEx, claiming that the company interfered with her FMLA rights.  One of the key issues in the case was whether or not it was appropriate for Murphy to continue her leave without following the company’s procedures.  Ultimately, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that under the circumstances, a reasonable jury could find that Murphy had notified FedEx that she was requesting FMLA leave and that  it was reasonable for her to rely on FedEx’s representation (that is, Karne’s “Cool” comment) that her leave was authorized.

In other words, by responding to Murphy’s request for thirty more days with “Okay, cool, not a problem.  I’ll let HR know,” Karnes essentially excused Murphy from following established procedure and instead granted her request.

The case illustrates how important it is for employers to clearly communicate their FMLA policies to their employees.  More importantly, it points out how crucial it is for employers to train their supervisors on how to respond to FMLA requests.  When a supervisor’s poor response leads an employee to reasonably believe that his or her FMLA leave request has been granted, the employee will probably be entitled to take the time off even if the company could have denied the request.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.
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