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Depressed Employee’s Vacation Leave Request Not FMLA-Protected

By Maria Greco Danaher  4/4/2014
 

The vacation request of an employee suffering from depression and anxiety did not qualify as a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave request, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. While the request might prove medically beneficial, it did not qualify for FMLA protection, as it did not include any period of actual incapacity

Patrick Hurley, CEO of a security company subsidiary, sent an e-mail to Gil Neuman, CEO of the parent company, setting forth an 11-week “vacation schedule” for the next two years. Neuman responded “Your request has been denied” and asked to meet with Hurley. Hurley then claimed that his “medical/health professionals” had advised him that availing himself of vacation time was a “necessity” going forward, although he did not mention that he was suffering from depression and anxiety. During a discussion of the issues on the following day between Hurley and Neuman, Hurley was terminated for “insubordinate behavior and poor performance.”

A week later, and with knowledge of Hurley’s termination, Hurley’s doctor filled out an FMLA form noting that Hurley suffered from depression, although the doctor could not determine the frequency or duration of any incapacity. Hurley then filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been fired for exercising his right to FMLA leave. The lawsuit did not include any specific allegation that Hurley was unable to work or was incapacitated. The employer contended that Hurley’s vacation request did not qualify for FMLA protection and that he was not terminated because of the request.

Both parties filed motions asking for summary judgment, and both motions were denied by the lower court. The case then proceeded to trial, where Hurley testified that he had requested leave for medical reasons but acknowledged that his wife had chosen the vacation/leave days without any input from a health care professional. The jury’s verdict was inconsistent: It found that Hurley’s leave request did not cause the termination, but it awarded Hurley $200,000 in damages for that termination. Hurley also was awarded $200,000 in liquidated damages, $354,000 in front pay and $244,000 in attorney fees, along with court costs. The trial court then denied the employer’s motion for a new trial.

The employer appealed, asserting again that Hurley did not qualify for FMLA leave and arguing that the jury verdict was inconsistent with the damage award. In response, Hurley contended that he could bring a claim under the FMLA without actually qualifying for leave because he provided sufficient notice and only had to “potentially qualify” for FMLA leave.

The 11th Circuit disagreed with Hurley and held that an employee must actually (and not potentially) qualify for FMLA leave in order to assert an interference or retaliation claim. It also determined that the district court erred by denying the employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Hurley’s claims because the vacation request did not qualify for leave under the FMLA.

It was not disputed that Hurley suffered from a chronic serious health condition within the meaning of the FMLA. However, he failed to establish the required period of incapacity to trigger the protections of the act. The FMLA does not extend its protections to a leave that is medically beneficial simply because the employee has a chronic health condition. Because Hurley admitted that his leave was not for a period of incapacity, he failed to meet the burden of proving that his vacation leave request qualified for protection under the FMLA and, therefore, was not entitled to damages under that statute.

Hurley v. Kent of Naples Inc., 11th Cir., No. 13-10298 (March 20, 2014).

Professional Pointer: The decision would likely have been different had Hurley provided with his vacation request some evidence or information that he would be treated for his depression and anxiety during that absence. Without that specific connection between the leave and either treatment or period of illness, Hurley was unable to prove that his request for leave was related to his serious health condition.

Maria Greco Danaher is an attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins.

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