Friday, June 30, 2017

Employee’s Uncontrollable Crying Gave Adequate Notice to Employer for FMLA Leave

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently denied a motion to dismiss against an employee’s FMLA claim, stating the employer had notice of the employee’s serious medical condition through, what can be described as, her repeated unusual behavior.

In Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, Noemi Valdivia stated that District 214 discriminated against her on the basis of race, and interfered with her right to take job-protected leave, and violated the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Valdivia worked for District 214 from May 2010 through August 2016. She began working at Elk Grove High School as a secretary, and throughout her time there regularly heard negative comments about Hispanics by her co-workers. This behavior increased in September 2014 and by June 2016, she became so distraught that she left Elk Grove and began working at Wheeling High School, another school part for District 214.

After working at Wheeling for a about a month, Valdivia continued hearing similar comments from her new co-workers, including those made by a supervisor. After hearing these comments, Valdivia was so upset that she began uncontrollably crying to the Principal. Valdivia stated she was overwhelmed, afraid, and unsure if she could continue working at Wheeling High School because of what she was hearing. Soon after, Valdivia called the school counselor and the Latino Outreach Family Coordinator, uncontrollably crying to both over her concerns with her work situation. The three District employees told Valdivia that she had to make a decision: continue working or resign.

As the comments continued at work, Valdivia once again approached the Principal and began crying about what she was hearing. She told her that she had not slept in weeks, had not been eating, and lost weight because of these concerns. The Principal, in response, told Valdivia to make her decision.

On August 4, 2016, Valdivia hesitantly submitted her letter of resignation from District 214, which would be effective August 11, 2016. Five days passed, and on August 9, 2016, Valdivia asked to rescind her resignation. The Principal told her she could not do that because the position had already been filled. It was not even two weeks later that Valdivia was hospitalized for four days and diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and insomnia.

In her complaint, Valdivia alleged that her co-worker’s comments interfered with her work at Elk Grove High School, and were the reason she felt forced to leave. After moving to Wheeling High School, she heard similar comments being made by co-workers and her supervisor. The court concluded that these allegations were enough to meet the standard of conduct being either severe or pervasive, and successfully stated a claim of a hostile work environment.

Valdivia also argued that District 214 interfered with her rights under the FMLA when they failed to provide her with the notice that she had a right to take job-protected leave. District 214 contends that there was no way of knowing that Valdivia had a serious medical condition because she had only worked there for a short amount of time. Further, District 214 argues that it is “absurd” for them to know that Valdivia had a serious medical condition before she, herself, even knew.

The Court disagreed with District 214, stating that Valdivia had displayed unusual employee behavior when she, on a number of occasions, uncontrollably cried about the effects she was experiencing from comments made at work. Additionally, the Court, following the Seventh Circuit, explained that an employee with a mental health condition, including depression, may be excused from giving direct notice to the employer because the medical condition might be the one thing preventing her from communicating what is wrong. (Burnett v. LFW Inc.,472 F.3d 471, 479 (7th Cir. 2006)).

While this case is not over just yet, it has highlighted an important duty and right under the FMLA. An employee has the duty to tell the employer of a probable basis for FMLA leave. This notice can be done constructively and displayed through observable changes in an employee’s condition, unusual conduct at work, or any behavior that seems to be abnormal. Here, Valdivia, an employee of District 214, sufficiently gave constructive notice of her medical condition. Though she was not diagnosed with anything until after she resigned, her unusual behavior and conditions of weight loss, lack of appetite, lack of sleep, and uncontrollably crying was enough to put the District on notice of her eligibility of FMLA leave.