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No “Magic Words” Needed to Trigger FMLA

Man and The Family and Medical Leave Act FMLA law.

When an employee requests leave, the employer’s responsibilities under the Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) are triggered if it has “knowledge that an employee’s leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason.” 29 CFR 825.300(b)(1). Once it has that information, it must provide the employee with an FMLA Eligibility Notice within five business days. Id. The key word is “may” – the employer must provide the notice if the request leave “may” be for an FMLA-qualifying reason. The employee need not prove that the reason is FMLA-qualifying, or use any special words to trigger the law’s protection. Employers should err on the side of caution. If an employee mentions illness or injury as the reason for an absence, then the absence “may” be FMLA-qualifying, and the notice should be provided.This year, a court in Pennsylvania affirmed that point. In Munoz v. Nutrisystem, Case No. 13-4416 (E.D. Pa. July 30, 2014), Ms. Munoz requested a day off work, explaining that she had “an infection and [her] neck was out.” The employer moved to dismiss the case, arguing Munoz’s request was insufficient to trigger its obligations under the FMLA. The court disagreed. It held that Munoz’s request (alluding to her neck as a reason for being out) was sufficient to put the employer on notice that her leave “may” have been FMLA-qualifying. It noted that a jury might also conclude the company should have inquired further, to find out for sure whether FMLA leave was needed.American Lawyer says the case “emphasizes to counsel and clients that every absence should be looked at carefully in relation to disability or FMLA claims,” and “if there is ever a question…the “tie” should always go to the employee.”

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