The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal has held that an impaired individual may not be required to comply directly with her employer’s heightened reporting requirements associated with FMLA leave. Saenz v. Harlingen Medical Center, LP, 5th Circ., No. 09-40887, August 2, 2010.

In order to take a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an employee must comply with reporting requirements codified in the Act and its regulations. Those regulations include a notice provision that requires the employee to provide information, as soon as practicable, that would allow the employer to recognize that the employee is suffering from a condition that may fit the FMLA’s definition of “serious medical condition.” In addition to the basic reporting requirement, an employer may also require employees to provide information during the leave, in order to allow the company to determine whether each such absence is associated with a serious medial condition.

Shauna Saenz was an employee of Harlingen Medical Center (HMC). In 2006, Saenz applied for – and was granted – intermittent FMLA leave for a seizure condition from which she suffered. During each of her absences, she complied with an additional requirement instituted by the company through its insurer (Hartford), that she report the reason for her absence within two days of that specific absence. Saenz was warned that her failure to report within two days could cause the loss of her FMLA status. Between July 24 and December 26, 2006, Saenz was absent on nine different occasions, seeking and receiving approval within two days of each absence, consistent with HMC’s heightened reporting requirement.

On December 25 and 26, Saenz missed work due to seizures, and reported appropriately. However, on December 29-31 and January 3-4, 2007, Saenz again missed work. This time, her absence was due to a psychological condition that ultimately required her to be hospitalized. Saenz’ mother, Rhonda Galloway, contacted Saenz’ supervisor and HMC’s “house” supervisor about the situation, letting them know that Saenz would not be reporting to work. Notably, the house supervisor visited Saenz in the emergency room. Saenz subsequently was admitted to a behavioral clinic until January 2, after which she went to Galloway’s home to recover. Galloway then called Saenz’ supervisor to report Saenz’ status and to make HMC aware that Saenz would not be reporting to work. In total, Saenz missed work on December 29-31, and January 3 and 4 due to her illness.

On January 9, Saenz called Hartford to report her diagnosis (bipolar disorder and depression) and to ask for intermittent leave associated with that condition. Saenz then received a letter dated January 18, 2007 from HMC informing her that her employment was terminated due to non-FMLA approved absences. The letter explained that Saenze should have reported with two days after her release from the hospital on January 2, and that her failure to do so created unexcused absences.

Saenz sued HMC, claiming violation of her rights under the FMLA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of HMC, but that decision was reversed by the Fifth Circuit. The Court reviewed two issues on appeal: first, whether Saenz was required to comply with HMC’s internally created heightened FMLA notice requirements, and whether Saenz provided adequate notice of her situation under the basic reporting requirements of the FMLA.

First, the Court found that Saenz provided sufficient information for HMC to realize that she was requesting FMLA leave, and did so within two days of her illness. Saenz’ mother contacted HMC to inform them of the new illness, and an HMC supervisor visited Saenz in the emergency room and saw her condition first-hand. HMC was not left to wonder whether Saenz was suffering from a serious health condition, or whether FMLA might apply. The Court found that because a jury could determine that Saenz – through Galloway – had complied with HMC’s heightened reporting requirement, dismissal of Saenz’ claim on summary judgment was inappropriate. The Court then went further, and said that even if Saenz complied with HMC’s heightened standard, HMC would be entitled to summary judgment if Saenz failed to comply with the actual FMLA reporting requirement. However, because the FMLA requires only that an employee contact the employer to state that leave is needed “as soon as practicable” under the facts of the particular case, the Court held that Saenz did, in fact, meet this low threshold through Galloway’s calls to HMC in which she described both Saenz’ symptoms and the significant treatment that Saenz was receiving.

Employers should recognize that while a company is allowed to establish heightened reporting requirements related to FMLA leaves, compliance with those requirements should be determined in light of the specific facts and circumstances of the employee’s situation.