Just Ask: Failure To Inquire Whether Mental Illness Is a Serious Health Condition Risks FMLA Liability

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Properly handling of mental illness under employment laws remains a challenge for employers.  One of the most common misconceptions is that such conditions don’t trigger protected leave.  A recent Fourth Circuit case however reminds us that notice to invoke Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits does not require “any magic words,” and when it doubt, it’s always best to inquire more.  Hannah P. v. Coats, No. 17-1943 (4th Cir. 2/19/19).

In this case, plaintiff Hannah started work for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2011.  Over the next few years, she told her supervisors about her depression, and in 2015, informed them that her doctor recommended she take four weeks of leave.   Hannah was told to first meet with a counselor in the Office’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), who allegedly disclosed to Hannah’s supervisor that Hannah’s attendance issues were related to a lack of motivation, not depression.  Nonetheless, Hannah’s leave was approved, and a combination of annual leave and sick leave were used to cover her time off work.

When Hannah’s contract ended in 2016, she sued the Office claiming among other things, interference under the FMLA because the Office failed to notify her of available FMLA leave.  Had she known, she claimed, she would have structured leave differently to net her an additional $20,000 annual leave payout.

The Office’s defense that Hannah’s depression was not a “serious health condition” subject to FMLA protections was rejected by the Court as “premature” because, stated the Court, the Office failed to show that “it made any inquiry into whether Hannah’s depression was an FMLA-qualifying serious health condition.”  To accept the Office’s argument, the Court opined, “would allow [the Office] to use its own failure to determine whether leave should be designated as FMLA-protected to block liability.”  Hannah’s testimony that had she known about FMLA, she would have preserved her annual leave for payout later, was evidence of prejudice and thus, summary judgment to the Office was reversed. The case is a good reminder that any time an employee requests leave for any type of health condition, it is best to inquire further to determine what, if any, obligations an employer has under benefits and leave laws.


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