Employment-Seventh Circuit Rules That Employee Does Not Forfeit FMLA Rights By Failing To Tell Employer How Much Leave She Will Take

Gienapp v. Harbor Crest, No. 14-1053 (7th Cir. 2014) involved the following situation. Suzan Gienapp worked at Harbor Crest, a residential nursing care facility in Fulton, Illinois. In January 2011 she told Myra Chattic, its top manager, that she needed time off to care for her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. Chattic granted leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”). Employees are entitled to as much as 12 weeks’ unpaid leave annually to care for children with serious health conditions. 29 U.S.C. section 2612(a)(1). Harbor Crest acknowledges that Gienapp’s daughter had a serious health condition, a term defined in §2611(11). While on leave, Gienapp mailed in an FMLA form, leaving blank a question about the leave’s expected duration.

Harbor Crest did not ask her to fill in the blank on the form, nor did it pose written questions as the 12-week period progressed. A physician’s statement on the form said that the daughter’s recovery was uncertain, and that if she did recover she would require assistance at least through July 2011. Chattic inferred from this that Gienapp would not return by April 1, her leave’s outer limit, and in mid February Chattic hired someone else in her stead. When Gienapp reported for work on March 29, Chattic told her that she no longer had a job. After the exhaustion of administrative remedies, this litigation followed, with Gienapp alleging a violation of her rights under the FMLA. The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that Gienapp had forfeited her rights under the FMLA by not telling Harbor Crest exactly how much leave she would take. Gienapp appeals.

In analyzing the case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that the statute requires notice to the employer of the need for leave. Gienapp gave notice; Chattic granted leave; Harbor Crest knew that it was governed by the FMLA. What Gienapp did not do was provide a date when she expected to return to work, though the form called for that information .
The Court said further that Gienapp’s application is covered by the FMLA regulation at §825.303, which deals with unforeseeable leave, the type of leave at issue here. And §825.303 does not require employees to tell employers how much leave they need, if they do not know yet themselves. Instead of requiring notice at the outset, §825.303(c) tells workers to comply with employers’ policies. Harbor Crest told Gienapp to call in monthly, and it is conceded that she did so. If Harbor Crest asked for any extra information during those calls, the record does not reflect undisputed details; we assume therefore that Gienapp complied with Harbor Crest’s policies. The Court concluded that Harbor Crest is not entitled to summary judgment on a theory that Gienapp failed to provide essential information. Rather, the Court ruled that Gienapp is entitled to summary judgment in her favor. It reversed the judgment of the district court, and remanded the case with instructions for the district court to craft an appropriate remedy.