The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has just issued an important ruling on how much notice an employee must give his employer to be entitled to federal Family Leave. The case, Sarnowski v. Air Brooke Limousine, was decided on December 12, 2007.
The facts are worth noting. The picture they paint is of a straightforward business situation that developed into a potentially costly violation of federal (and also state) law.
Sarnowski was hired in July, 2001. His initial performance evaluations were good, and a year later he received a salary increase. However, Sarnowski had a history of heart disease, and in October, 2002, he had quintuple bypass surgery for arterial blockages. He missed about a month and a half of work.
On April 7, 2003 Sarnowski's doctors discovered more arterial blockages. They required him to wear a heart monitor and told him that he might require more surgery. Ultimately, he did. In the meantime, however, Sarnowski says that "he then advised his immediate supervisor that his doctors had found four more blockages, that he was going to have to undergo medical monitoring, and that he might need to take an additional six weeks off for further heart surgery."
Air Brooke fired Sarnowski just eight days later, after the supervisor had learned of the heart monitor but before the need for more surgery had been definitely established. At the time, Sarnowski had not filed a formal written request for Family & Medical Leave under Air Brooke's policy requiring same.
The trial court threw out Sarnowski's FMLA claim for failure to comply with the policy. The court of appeals, however, reversed and sent the case back for trial.
The court considered the question whether the informal notice that Sarnowski gave his supervisor was sufficient to satisfy the FMLA's requirement that the employer be given reasonable notice. To state it succinctly, the court found that good notice had been given. The court noted that "the employee need not use any magic words. The critical question is how the information conveyed to the employer is reasonably interpreted."
We can draw two lessons from the Sarnowksi decision.
First, the employee's obligation is to provide the employer with enough notice to establish that he may need FMLA leave. If the information provided is insufficiently specific, informal notice may not be good enough to protect his rights.
Second, from the employer's perspective, the court will not allow a business's internal policy that purports to require detailed notice of an FMLA leave request to override the reasonable notice requirement of the statute and related regulations. The employee's request will be interpreted liberally for reasonable compliance with the statute, rather than for whether it strictly complies with the rigors of a corporation's policy.
HR departments and managers need to know about this case so that informal employee requests for leave can be processed appropriately, and liability can be avoided.