FMLA Leave Not Available Following Pet’s Death

By Madonna Snowden February 13, 2018
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​Insomnia caused by emotional distress over the passing of a beloved pet was not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when the insomnia did not meet the definition of "serious health condition," according to the U.S. District Court of Eastern Wisconsin. Even when insomnia meets this definition, as the court noted it could, a worker must give a supervisor adequate notice of the need for FMLA time off, and the court found that the employee in this case failed to do so.

The employee worked as a machinist for Mercury Marine from September 2012 to August 2014. On May 26, 2014, he called his supervisor and asked for a vacation day for his shift scheduled for the following day because he was upset about having had to put his dog of 13 years to sleep. The machinist did not tell his supervisor how upset he was about losing his dog or that he had been unable to sleep since the dog had died. Mercury granted his request for leave.

The next day, the employee called his supervisor again and allegedly explained that he had not slept since the loss of his dog and would not be able to work his shift on May 28, 2014. The machinist was documented for an unexcused absence.

That day, he sought treatment for his condition. He was diagnosed with "situational insomnia" and the doctor wrote him a note that included this passage: "Please excuse missed work on May 28th. Joe was in the clinic for evaluation of situational insomnia. Treatment has been initiated." Despite the note, the absence remained unexcused. Over the next three months, the employee accumulated several other unexcused absences that resulted in his termination. He filed suit against Mercury, alleging interference of his rights under the FMLA.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

In granting summary judgment in favor of the employer, the district court rejected the machinist's claim that Mercury interfered with his rights under the FMLA. The court held that while inability to sleep caused by the passing of a pet could arguably constitute a "serious health condition," the employee in this case failed to show that his condition qualified under the act.

Specifically, the record showed no evidence that he sought medical attention for insomnia, other than his one visit to a clinic. The record contained no prescriptions, treatment reports or anything to support his declaration of a chronic condition. Even the doctor's note indicated only that the employee should be excused from work. It did not state that he was unable to perform the functions of his job. This was insufficient to categorize his insomnia as a qualifying condition under the FMLA.

The court further stated that even if his insomnia did qualify as a serious health condition, he failed to give his supervisor adequate notice of his need for leave.

The worker alleged in his complaint that Mercury never notified him that he could take FMLA leave for a serious health condition. While Mercury admitted that it did not provide the employee directly with information about his FMLA rights or provide him a copy of its FMLA policy, that did not necessarily mean Mercury committed a technical violation under the act. The act requires an employer to provide an employee with notice only "when the employer acquires knowledge that an employee's leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason."

The court expressed doubts over the employee's statement that he had notified his supervisor that he had insomnia. The doctor's note was deemed insufficient to convey the seriousness of his condition, the court also decided. Even if the supervisor had been alerted about the worker's insomnia, the court reasoned, at most the facts supported the conclusion that the employee was distraught over his dog and that he had not slept for days. While it is possible that situational insomnia could constitute a serious health condition in certain cases, the court concluded that the information provided to Mercury did not indicate that.

Buck v. Mercury Marine Corp., E.D. Wis., No. 16-cv-1013-pp (Dec. 22, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Before an employer's duty to provide leave or other statutory benefits to employees under the FMLA is triggered, an employee must provide adequate notice of the need for and the justification for covered leave.

Madonna Snowden is an attorney with Allen Norton & Blue, P.A., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Winter Park, Fla.

 

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