Does Employee’s Text Message Qualify as an ‘FMLA Request’?

Employees aren’t required to specifically mention the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to put your organization on notice that they need job-protected leave. They don’t even have to mention the law at all.

However, they must provide enough details about the reason for the requested leave to let the employer know that the leave could be protected. Then it’s up to employers to determine whether the reason qualifies as a “serious condition” under the FMLA.

A recent court ruling deals with an ultra-modern twist on this issue: Does a text message sent by an employee legally put a company on notice of their need for FMLA leave?

The case: Chrisanne Lanier, a Texas medical center employee, sent a text message to her boss saying her father was in the emergency room and that she wouldn’t be on call that night as scheduled.

When a supervisor confronted her about the incident, Lanier tossed papers in the air and left the building angrily. The employer determined it was accepting her resignation. She sued, citing FMLA interference. The court sided with the medical center, saying:

FMLA Compliance D

“It would be unreasonable to expect (the supervisor) to know that Lanier meant to request FMLA leave based on these facts. Lanier’s only request was to be relieved of on-call duty that night. Lanier had taken FMLA leave in the past and  was familiar with the proper way to request it, yet she did not do so here. No reasonable jury could conclude that the text message Lanier sent was sufficient to appraise Leary of her intent to request FMLA leave to care for her father.” (Lanier v. University of Texas)

The message for employers? You don’t need to be a mind reader. Still, it’s important to train supervisors to be aware that certain employee requests for leave could qualify for FMLA leave and, consequently, how those supervisors should handle such requests (contact HR, etc.).

As the court concluded in this case, “Although an employee need not use the phrase ‘FMLA leave,’ she must  give notice that is sufficient to reasonably appraise her employer that her request to take time off could fall under the FMLA. This court does not apply categorical rules for the content of the notice; instead we focus on what is ‘practicable’ based on the facts and circumstances of each individual. An employer may have a duty to inquire further if statements made by the employee warrant it, but the employer is not required to be clairvoyant.”