7th Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict for Plaintiff-Employee in FMLA Lawsuit

On November 12, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff-employee who sued the defendant-employer for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA").  Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, No. 19-1410 (7th Cir. 11/12/2019).  The plaintiff claimed that the defendant interfered with her rights under the FMLA by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave.  After a jury trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $12,000 in damages.  The plaintiff informed her supervisor that she was considering leaving for medical reasons.  She submitted a letter of resignation but shortly thereafter asked to rescind her resignation, which request was denied, resulting in the conclusion of her employment.

Congress enacted the FMLA to assist employees in balancing the demands of their jobs with their own medical needs and those of their families.  The purpose of the FMLA is to entitle employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons in a manner that accommodates the legitimate interests of employers.  To accomplish this goal, the FMLA provides that an eligible employee may take up to twelve unpaid workweeks of leave during a twelve-month period if she is unable to perform the functions of her position because of a serious health condition.  An employer may not interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise the rights guaranteed by the FMLA.

To prevail on an FMLA-interference claim, an employee must establish the following: (1) she was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  The defendant argued that the district court erred in denying its motion for judgment as a matter of law because, in its view, no reasonable juror could find that (a) the plaintiff was entitled to leave under the FMLA or (b) that the plaintiff provided the defendant with adequate notice.  An employee is entitled to FMLA leave if: (1) she is afflicted with a serious health condition, and (2) that condition makes her unable to perform the essential functions of her position.  An employee has a serious health condition within the meaning of the FMLA when she has an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (A) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider.

The evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding that the plaintiff had a serious health condition.  Shortly after she left her job, the plaintiff was hospitalized for symptoms identical to those she had described to her supervisor.  Based on the hospitalization, the jury could conclude that while she was employed by the defendant, she had a mental condition that involved inpatient care in a hospital.  In addition, at trial she provided detailed testimony describing her condition and the symptoms she had experienced.  Her medical records, which corroborated her testimony, were admitted into evidence.  Her health care professional also testified at trial.  Based on the evidence, the jury reasonably found that the plaintiff suffered from a serious health condition.  An employee does not need to be diagnosed during her employment, as long as the condition existed then.  The jury also reasonably concluded that because of her serious health condition, she was unable to perform the functions of her job.  Thus, there was no reason to disturb the jury's conclusion that the plaintiff had a serious health condition that made her unable to perform the functions of her job while she was working for the defendant.

The defendant also contended that the notice the plaintiff provided was insufficient as a matter of law.  The FMLA notice requirements are not onerous.  Direct notice from an employee to an employer is not always required; an employer's constructive notice of an employee's need for FMLA leave may be sufficient.  The plaintiff met with her supervisor on several occasions to report her health issues.  She asked for the accommodation of a ten-month position rather than a twelve-month position, even though she did not expressly mention the FMLA when she made the request.  She said that she was incapable of accepting a new work assignment.  Based on those conversations, the jury was entitled to reasonably conclude that this was timely and actual notice to the defendant.