Court: Employers Must Consider Context for Worker FMLA Notice

January 22, 2007 ( - A federal appellate court has ruled that a worker for a property management company who was ultimately diagnosed with prostate cancer had properly notified his former employer of his need for medical leave before that time.

In overturning a lower court ruling, the 7 th US Circuit Court of Appeals held that David Burnett should have the right to further court proceedings on his claim the ex-employer had interfered with his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights by firing him for being absent from work too often while he had medical problems.

Burnett’s case revolved around whether he had met one of the legal requirements for proving an FMLA interference case – properly notifying the employer of the need to take time off – the appeals judges said.

“When considered in their proper context, Burnett’s remarks were sufficient to put Habitat on notice of his need for medical leave,” wrote Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, for the court. … “Burnett therefore gave an account of symptoms and complaints, which formed a coherent pattern and progression, beginning with initial symptoms, continuing with doctor’s visits, and then additional testing and results.”

The appellate panel asserted that it was not unreasonable to expect employers to consider the wider context of employees’ statements about their health and potential need for leave – turning away assertions by the Chicago-based employer, The Habitat Co., that such an expectation would place too heavy a burden on the company.

“Burnett is not seeking to reach back over vast periods of time to grasp at an isolated mention of illness that was reasonably banished from his employer’s institutional memory,” Williams wrote. “He seeks only to invoke Habitat’s institutional memory as to the natural course of his illness, which spanned a period of only four months (and included the same supervisor throughout the entire relevant period). When considered in their proper context, then, Burnett’s declarations on January 29 were more than a vague and untethered claim of sickness. Rather, Burnett’s proclamation of illness was supported by details suggesting a serious health condition.”

According to the court documents, Habitat fired Burnett in February 2004, eight days before his prostate cancer was diagnosed. The move followed a period of four months during which Burnett missed work because of medical tests and was repeatedly disciplined for the absences and for performing substandard work.

The 7th Circuit ruling is  here .