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‘Unusual’ behavior may signal need for FMLA leave

by on
in Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employees who can’t tell their employers they have serious health conditions may still put their employers on notice—and trigger their FMLA rights. “Unusual” behavior alone can be enough to notify a reasonable employer that an employee may have a serious health condition.

That unusual behavior can include shouting at a supervisor, a panic reaction or other sudden emotional outbursts.

Recent case: Beverly Stevenson was by all accounts a model employee. All that changed when a stray dog entered the warehouse where Stevenson worked and approached her.

Stevenson became unhinged. She started spraying Glade air freshener throughout the warehouse, yelling, cursing and screaming, “F_____ animals shouldn’t be in the workplace.” Then she went home, claiming a headache.

The following morning, Stevenson called in sick. A few days later she showed up at work, walked into the president’s office and started screaming about the stray dog. She then left work and contacted OSHA about the dog. A visit to a doctor resulted in a diagnosis of anxiety and stress.

Stevenson did not return to work and was discharged when she ran out of vacation and sick time. She then filed an FMLA lawsuit. The company said she didn’t notify it that she needed FMLA leave, citing cases that say calling in sick is not notice.

But the 7th Circuit disagreed. It said that employees have to let their employers know they may need FMLA leave only if they are capable of doing so. In this case, the court felt that Stevenson’s sudden erratic behavior should have put the company on notice that she might be suffering from a serious health condition. The court concluded it was possible Stevenson herself didn’t realize she was suffering from a serious health condition. (Stevenson v. Hyre Electric, No. 06-3501, 7th Cir., 2007)

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