Employers often cringe when they think about taking a case to a jury. Even if the facts are good for the company, juries are notoriously unpredictable and sometimes follow sympathies rather than legal reasoning. That, of course, is one reason why appellate review exists. A recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit provides a case study of the issue in the context of a company executive’s claim of a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) violation when he was fired. Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 5259 (11th Cir. March 20, 2014).
Patrick Hurley had been the CEO of Kent of Naples, a security company, for about seven years when he sent the CEO of his parent company, Gil Neuman, an email listing his “vacation schedule” of eleven weeks over the coming two years. Neuman denied the vacation request and asked to meet with Hurley. Hurley responded that his email was “not a request it was a schedule.” Hurley also wrote that “I have been advised by medical/health professionals that my need to avail myself of vacation time that I have earned is no longer optional.” Hurley closed the letter by accusing Neuman of failing to pay him an overdue bonus and privately ridiculing his ideas.
What Hurley did not say to Neuman in the email was that he was suffering from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. A meeting was held, which concluded with Neuman firing Hurley. Hurley claimed that he told Neuman of his medical condition during that meeting, something Neuman denied.
About a week after the termination, Hurley got his doctor to complete a FMLA certification form, even though the doctor knew Hurley had been fired. Hurley then sued the company. With a dispute over whether Neuman knew of Hurley’s condition out there, the district court denied cross motions for summary judgment and sent the case to trial.
The company claimed that Hurley had only requested vacation, not FMLA leave. Hurley claimed he had a chronic condition of which the company was aware. The jury returned a verdict in Hurley’s favor – finding that the company interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for invoking the FMLA. The award exceeded $1 million. The company appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed, granting the company’s renewed motion for judgment. The court rejected Hurley’s contention that all he needed to do was show he “potentially” qualified for FMLA leave. Judge Cox wrote that “the FMLA does not extend its potent protection to any leave that is medically beneficial leave simply because the employee has a chronic health condition.” Looking at DOL regulation 29 C.F.R. § 825.115(c), he stressed that “the FMLA only protects leave for ‘[a]ny period of incapacity or treatment for such incapacity due to a chronic serious health condition.’”
The court found that Hurley gave sufficient notice of a desire for leave generally, but it was not of a need for FMLA and “notice is only relevant to an FMLA claim if the noticed leave is protected by the FMLA.” Said the court, “[g]iving an employer notice of unqualified leave does not trigger the FMLA’s protection. Otherwise, the FMLA would apply to every leave request.” Particularly difficult for Hurley to overcome was his testimony at trial that the requested vacation leave was not intended to predict periods of any incapacity because Hurley did not know when his panic attacks would occur. As such, no reasonable jury could find that his vacation schedule was really a request for FMLA leave to address planned incapacity.