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Employee’s bizarre behavior can count as FMLA ‘Notice’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

If you’ve never had any formal psychiatric training, maybe it’s time you put your business plan aside and register for Psych 101. Why? A recent court ruling shows how the FMLA can require you and your supervisors to play psychiatrist, too.

Typically, employees must notify you if they have an FMLA-qualifying “serious” physical or mental condition. But what if the employee isn’t even aware of this need?

Is it up to you and your supervisors to recognize behavioral changes that may indicate the presence of a serious FMLA-qualifying condition? In cases of psychiatric problems it probably does, as the following case shows.

Case in Point: Receptionist Beverly Stevenson was a model employee until the day a stray dog climbed through the warehouse window. Stevenson became unhinged. She started spraying deodorizer on the dog and yelling and cursing. She then went home, reporting a backache and headache.

The next day she walked into the president’s office, screamed about the dog for 10 minutes, then went to the emergency room complaining of a headache and anxiety related to an “emotionally stressful incident at work.”

She called in sick for the next three days. Upon her return, she discovered her desk had been moved. Her response: call the police and leave work again. This time, the company changed the locks out of “fear of what she might do” and fired her.

Stevenson filed an FMLA lawsuit. The company argued that it wasn’t liable because Stevenson never notified it that she needed FMLA leave.

The court went for Stevenson’s “the dog ate my sanity” argument. It said employees only have to let their employers know they may need FMLA leave if they’re capable of doing so. The court said Stevenson’s sudden erratic behavior should have put the company on notice that she might be suffering from a serious health condition. (Stevenson v. Hyre Elec. Co., 7th Cir.)

Observe abrupt changes in behavior

When a perfect employee suffers a sudden, dramatic change in behavior, sit up and take “notice” … literally. As this ruling shows, the behavioral change, on its own, may count as an employer’s constructive notice for FMLA leave. 

As the court pointed out, sometimes employees with psychiatric disorders don’t know they have problems. That’s a key difference between mental and physical illnesses. Employees know when they have broken legs. But a mental disorder may cloud the ability to think clearly, which is what the ability to ask for FMLA leave requires.

Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. 

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