The Employer's Legal Resource: Court Denies Summary Judgment to Employer on FMLA Notice Issue
Henry Kozarsky was employed by AO Smith Corp, a manufacturer of water heaters, as an engineer. Despite average performance reviews, Kozarsky exhibited strange behaviors at work on multiple occasions. In December of 2008, Kozarsky disrupted a team meeting, accused the company's management team of poor management, yelled at his supervisor and stormed out of the meeting. Kozarsky agreed that his behavior was inappropriate and apologized. In January of 2011, Kozarsky sent an email to a new supervisor, who knew Kozarsky had a history of depression, asking if the supervisor and other management members were now dictators and criticizing the supervisor's project management. Two months later, Kozarsky refused to travel for work at an emergency job site. Kozarsky was given a written warning.
However, Kozarsky's strange behaviors continued. His coworkers stated he was acting unusual and engaging in rambling conversations that did not pertain to work. Kozarsky's supervisor reported to the human resources manager that Kozarsky told him he was feeling stressed, wanted counseling, and planned to consult his family doctor. Kozarsky also told his supervisor that he had been diagnosed as bipolar and was taking anti-depressants. His supervisor again told the HR manager that he was concerned about Kozarsky. Another coworker reported that Kozarsky was acting strange, lacked focus, disrupted conversations, and that his abnormal behavior was getting worse.
In April of 2011, all AO Smith Corp. engineers were scheduled for two days of mandatory training. However, Kozarsky requested the two days off for vacation. Kozarsky's request was denied and was reminded that the training was mandatory. Kozarsky repeated the request stating he was stressed and needed to "unwind." Despite his request being denied again, Kozarsky failed to appear for the mandatory training and was terminated for "uncooperative behavior." Kozarsky was informed of his termination over the phone. During the conversation, Kozarsky's wife informed AO Smith Corp. that Kozarsky had suffered an anxiety attack. Kozarsky then sued AO Smith Corp. alleging ADA and FMLA violations. The court ruled there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether AO Smith Corp. had notice of Kozarsky's intent to take FMLA leave and denied its motion for summary judgment.
This case serves as a good reminder to employers regarding leave requests. Employees are not required to make formal requests in writing or use "magic words" such as "FMLA," "ADA," "disability," "reasonable accommodation" or "serious health condition." To request FMLA leave, employees only need to notify their employer of the request for leave and provide enough information regarding their medical condition so that the employer is aware that it may be covered by the FMLA. This is certainly true where an employer already has knowledge of an employee's medical condition. To request leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, employees only need to state their need for a change or adjustment due to a medical condition. Requiring more can put an employer at risk for interfering with an employee's FMLA rights or failing to reasonably accommodate an employee in violation of the ADA.
For any issues regarding employee health issues or leave requests, please contact our Labor and Employment Group.
By Kenneth T. Short, firstname.lastname@example.org