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August 7, 2013

BTW Texting May Not Be Your Best Option!

Filed under: Communication,FMLA,General HR Buzz9:06 am

Remember when picking up the phone and having a two-way conversation with your boss was the norm?  In our quest to keep up with the constantly evolving technology, texting has become a more frequent and accepted method of communication, that is unless you are requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Recently an appellate court ruled that a text message is not sufficient notice to an employer of an employee’s need for FMLA.  Chrisanne Lanier brought suit against the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) alleging various theories of recovery, including FMLA.

On an evening Lanier was scheduled to be on-call, she sent a text message to her supervisor, Leary, to inform him that her father was in the emergency room and that she would be unable to perform her duties that night.  Leary made other arrangements for coverage for the evening.

When she failed to respond to an operator’s call on her make-up week, Leary was notified.  The following morning Leary confronted Lanier about her having abandoned her duties by not responding.  Lanier expressed (explicitly, but not in a text message!) how upset she was with Leary in regard to her father’s heart attack.  She turned in all her equipment and stormed out.  She went directly to the UTSW Employee Assistance Program office on campus, unbeknownst to Leary and other management.  Because of her actions, Lanier was told the university accepted her resignation.

Regarding her claims of interference and retaliation, the court focused on whether Lanier had given proper notice of her intention to take FMLA leave.  Although an employee need not use the phrase “FMLA leave,” she must give notice that was sufficient to reasonably apprise her employer that her request to take time off could fall under the FMLA.  An employer may have a duty to inquire further if statements made by the employee warrant it, but “the employer is not required to be clairvoyant.”  Based on the facts and circumstances in this case, the court found that it would be unreasonable to expect Leary to know that Lanier meant to request FMLA based on her single text message request to be relieved of on-call duty for one night.  Summary judgment was awarded to UTSW.

Employers do well to have proper reporting procedures, including the desired method of communication, in place for FMLA.  Each individual employee’s circumstances will differ, but with knowledgeable Human Resources and well-trained supervisors that consider the facts of each case on its own merit, your chances for avoiding this type of litigation will be much improved!

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