The Sixth Circuit found that an employer did not interfere with an employee’s ability to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) when she attempted to rescind her resignation after returning from FMLA leave. The court found that the employee clearly communicated to her supervisor that she wanted to resign and that she made this decision without any coercion by the company. Thus, the company had no reason to interpret the employee’s statement that she would not be coming back to work as an indication that she was requesting further FMLA leave.
Employee Returns to Work Without Restrictions and Subsequently Quits
In Miles v. Nashville Electric Service, the Sixth Circuit reviewed an FMLA interference complaint in which an employee was hospitalized for a psychotic break leading to medical leave under the FMLA. The day after returning from medical leave, the employee informed her supervisor that she wished to quit, and she submitted a resignation letter. Although the employee sought to rescind her resignation three days later, the company refused to reinstate her. The employee later claimed that her resignation was coerced and that the company was on “notice” that she was requesting further medical leave.
Bilquis Miles was employed by Nashville Electric Service. Miles had a history of psychotic breaks, requiring the use of FMLA leave for hospitalization and recovery. In April 2011, Miles suffered a psychotic break which required hospitalization, for which she requested FMLA leave.
Approximately one month later, Miles returned to her work after supplying FMLA paperwork, including a medical release. The medical release stated that Miles was “capable to return to work without restriction.” After working for half of her first work day, Miles asked for, and was granted permission to leave early. The following morning, Miles called her supervisor and stated that she “wasn’t gonna be back.” After the supervisor asked Miles to clarify what she meant, Miles told him that she quit. Miles then met her supervisor and provided him with a resignation letter and her company ID card.
Three days later, Miles sought to rescind her resignation, presumably so that she could remain employed long enough to receive short-term disability and long-term disability benefits. The company did not allow Miles to rescind her resignation. Miles sued for interference with her FMLA rights. The district court granted summary judgment to Nashville Electric. The case was then appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
The Resignation Was Not Coerced
An “eligible employee” is entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year if he or she has a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her position. Employers cannot interfere with this right. However, the employee must prove that: (1) he/she was an eligible employee; (2) the employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) the employee was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) the employee gave notice of his/her intention to take leave; and (5) the employer denied the employee FMLA benefits to which he/she was entitled.
In this case, the court considered whether Nashville Electric failed to fulfill its duty to inquire further as to whether Miles was requesting leave for a potentially FMLA-qualifying reason and not merely resigning. In other words, was Miles’ resignation “notice” of the need for further FMLA leave?
The Sixth Circuit first noted that the FMLA does not place a duty on an employer to affirmatively grant leave without a request or notice from the employee. The court stated that “[t]he critical test for substantively-sufficient notice is whether the information that the employee conveyed to the employer was reasonably adequate to apprise the employer of the employee’s request to take leave for a serious health condition that rendered him unable to perform his job.” The employee does not need to expressly mention the FMLA but must give the employer enough information for the employer to reasonably conclude that FMLA leave might be warranted.
An employer’s duty to inquire further as to whether additional FMLA leave is indicated is triggered only once the employee has provided sufficient notice. The court rejected Miles’ argument that she gave sufficient notice to Nashville Electric when she said she “could not come back” after having left work early on the preceding day. Instead, the court found that the evidence indicated that Miles intended to resign rather than take further FMLA leave. Miles conceded that her supervisor inquired further during their resignation conversation, specifically asking Miles “what type of leave she needed” when Miles stated she would not be coming in for her second post-leave day of work. Miles also testified that she told her supervisor that she wanted to quit, not that she wanted to take additional leave or that she needed additional time to recuperate. Because Miles clearly stated that she wanted to quit, and because she admitted that she came to this decision independently, the court found her claim that she actually was requesting additional FMLA leave not to be credible. Moreover, Miles provided a medical release from her physician stating that she was capable to return to work without restrictions.
Finally, the court stated that Miles did not have a right to rescind her resignation. After resigning, Miles no longer was an employee of Nashville Electric and, therefore, was no longer an “eligible employee” entitled to protection under the FMLA.
Miles v. Nashville Electric Service, is an example of an employer “doing it right.” We should learn the following lessons from Nashville Electric’s response to Miles’ statement that she “could not return to work” and wanted to quit:
Require a “clean” return to work clearance with no restrictions;
If the employee states they would like to quit, inquire further as to whether the employee would benefit from additional leave;
Require a written resignation; and
Do not coerce or pressure the employee to resign.
Nashville Electric followed these simple rules when Miles quit her employment. Because of the clear record that Nashville Electric took the time to create, the company was able to defeat Miles’ FMLA interference claim. Employers should strive to emulate all the steps taken by Nashville Electric in similar circumstances.
If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau attorney.