An employee's request for leave due to "depression" failed to adequately notify the employer that the absence may be FMLA-qualifying.
The issue was addressed in Rask v. Fresenius Medical Care North American, No. 06-3923, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 28198 (8th Cir. Dec. 6, 2007). Elizabeth Rask was terminated from her job as a patient care technician for Fresenius when she failed to come to work on May 28. Prior to that, she had received a series of disciplinary actions for attendance problems. Rask sued, alleging that her termination violated the FMLA. She claimed that she should not have received discipline for some of her depression-related absences as they should have been covered by the FMLA. The district court awarded summary judgment to Fresenius. Rask appealed.
On appeal, Rask argued that her supervisor's had prior notice that she suffered from depression and the side effects of medications for same which required periodic absences. With prior notice, her last request for leave "for help with my medication still, I'm still having a lot of side effects from what they put me on," was sufficient notice of her need for FMLA leave. The court disagreed.
The court opined that, while mental illness can be an FMLA-covered "serious health condition" if it satisfies the statutory and regulatory definitions, the FMLA does not "include depression in all of its forms." The court continued:
Depression, like many illnesses, is a condition with many variations, and in common parlance the word is used to describe a wide variety of symptoms, including simply "a state of feeling sad."
Because of the broad scope encompassed by the term "depression," the court went on to find that "Ms. Rask would need to apprise Fresenius of more than the mere fact that she had been diagnosed with something called"depression" to put them on notice that she had a serious health condition."
The court went on to distinguish the facts from the situation in Spangler v. Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, 278 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2002). In that case, the Eighth Circuit found that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether a bank employee with depression put the bank on notice that she needed FMLA leave by telling them she would be absent for "depression again." The court noted that in Spangler the employee's supervisors knew that the employee had been diagnosed with depression and had taken two formal leaves of absence for treatment of her depression.
Here, in contrast, the court found that "Fresenius...did not have the contextual knowledge that the employer in Spangler had that would link the statement with a serious health condition. Rask pointed to the fact that she had requested leave on an earlier occasion from a supervisor who knew she was depressed because of side effects from medication. The court observed:
We conclude that there is no evidence in the record that Ms. Rask at any point gave her supervisors any details about her depression, its severity, or any incapacity that it might give rise to, sufficient to indicate that it, as opposed to the side effects from her medication, was serious. The side effects in this case are not covered by the FMLA because there was no evidence that they were a "chronic health condition."
The court went on to note that, at best, Rask's supervisor was aware that she was depressed "with all the ambiguity that the word entails. When Ms. Rask said that she would be absent for "help" with my medication," Fresenius lacked any context to indicate that the side effects of Ms. Rask's medications were not the cause of the absence. It also lacked any context to link this absence with a serious health condition."
Comment: To perfect the right to FMLA leave, an employee must apprise his or her employer of the specifics of his or her health condition in a way that makes it reasonably plain that it is serious. It is not a difficult burden. Rask teaches that medical "buzz" words like "depression" cover such a broad spectrum of potential illnesses, from having a bout of the "blues" to incapacity requiring institutionalization, that merely invoking "depression," without more information, fails to adequately apprise the employer that the leave may be FMLA-qualifying. Note that the reference to "depression" was not even sufficient to shift the burden of inquiry to the employer.
To perfect the right to FMLA leave, employee's will want to provide more detailed information regarding the nature of their illness, its severity, and whether the illness has caused incapacity.
The Eighth Circuit covers North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.