Unusual Behavior Enough for FMLA Mental Health Condition Notice

October 17, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a worker's claim that her employer did not inform her of her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights after she suffered a mental breakdown when a stray dog meandered into her work area.

The appellate court did, however, reverse a lower court’s decision in favor of Chicago-based Hyre Electrical Company, saying that there were still fact issues of “lurking” in the case. The court further found that an employee’s behavior can be bizarre enough not to require a formal FMLA leave request by an employee.

According to the ruling, Beverly Stevenson worked in the office at Hyre, and on February 9, 2004 had an extreme emotional and physical response following a stray dog’s entrance into her work space. Stevenson said she instantly “felt physical symptoms, including headache, a rush of blood to her head, and a tightening of her neck.”

Immediately after the dog incident, Stevenson’s supervisor found Stevenson very agitated and “spraying Glade,” a room deodorizer, according to the opinion. Her supervisor also said she was yelling and cursing for about three or four minutes.

Stevenson left work and didn’t return for several days, and when she returned, her behavior was erratic and she was unable to work. She visited the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with “anxiety and stress” and given a prescription for Ativan, the court said.

In March, she received a termination letter. However, Stevenson claimed that her employer violated the FMLA when it fired her, because Hyre had notice she was suffering from a serious health condition.

The question before the appellate court was whether Stevenson gave sufficient notice to Hyre of her request for FMLA leave, and whether Stevenson gave Hyre proper notice that she was contesting that her company properly informed her of her FMLA rights.

FMLA requires a 30-day advance notice by an employee to an employer that he or she will need FMLA leave, but that advance notice is not always possible. According to the opinion, it is possible that Stevenson didn’t know she was suffering from a serious medical condition until she went to the emergency room , at which point she was diagnosed with anxiety and given prescription drugs.

However, the lower court found that after her diagnosis, Stevenson did not give Hyre two days notice required by FMLA in cases where there is an imminent emergency.

The appellate court disagreed, saying that the district court erred “as a matter of law by not considering Stevenson’s claims of unusual behavior as constructive notice regardless of her ability to communicate.” The court further noted that Stevenson’s behavior was so unusual that it gave Hyre constructive notice of her need for FMLA leave.

“Lengthy encounters of yelling and swearing at one’s superiors so severe that a company locks out an employee with a previously unblemished record for safety concerns, coupled with that employee’s calling the police because her belongings have been moved to another desk, are undeniably unusual and could be viewed by a trier of fact as unusual enough to give Hyre notice of a serious mental health condition,” Circuit Judge Diane Wood wrote.

The appellate court also found that Stevenson satisfied the medical treatment requirement because of her visit to the emergency room and her ongoing prescriptions, which is considered “a regiment of continuing treatment” under the auspices of the FMLA. However, she did fail to show she was unable to perform “other daily activities.”

The opinion in Beverly Stevenson v. Hyre Electric Company is here .