Plaintiff’s Disregard of FMLA Requirements Brings About Inevitable Judgment

John GarnerDMEC News

Due to the actions of the plaintiff, it seems that the case brought before the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit was destined to fail from the onset.  When requesting time off from his job of nine years, Michael Kobus (Kobus) was so wary of disclosing that he was receiving treatment for depression that he offered little to his employer of nine years, so that they could adequately assist him in filing not only for FMLA, but for any type of leave.

Suing his former employer, Kobus alleged that his forced resignation from the College of St. Scholastica (the College) interfered with or denied his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).  When tried before the district court, summary judgment was granted to the College.  On appeal, the district court findings were affirmed.

The case is Michael Kobus vs. College of St Scholastica, Inc.

Kobus worked as a painter for the College from 1997 to 2007.  In 2005, Kobus advised his supervisor that he was suffering from stress and anxiety and might need some time off from work to deal with it, because everything “was piling up, and I was asking him about different leaves.”  Kobus indicated during his testimony that he never disclosed that he had actually been diagnosed with depression, or that he had been taking antidepressants.  When advised of his need to take time off, the College provided Kobus with a form entitled, “Request for Family Medical Leave.”  At that time, he was advised that he could apply for FMLA leave if he had a serious medical condition.  Kobus testified that he put the form provided to him by the College in a drawer without reading it, and that he told his supervisor, “I didn’t need any leave.  Not just FMLA; any leave.  I did not need a leave at that time” because “I thought I could handle it.”

Continuing to miss work, Kobus received a written warning for excessive absenteeism in late November 2006.  Kobus was again absent from work on January 15 through 18, 2007.  On January 18, he called the College to request “mental health leave” because family problems were causing “these knots in my neck and the pains in my head.”  The availability of FMLA leave was again raised as an option to Kobus by the College, but when he was told he needed a doctor to sign a leave request certification, he indicated, “This might be some trouble.  I don’t have a doctor.  Is there any other way to go?”

After being denied the requested “mental leave of absence” on January 18, 2007, Kobus submitted a letter of resignation to the College.  He never mentioned depression or medication in any communication with the College, nor did he refer to his condition or FMLA leave during an exit interview which was conducted by the Associate Director at the College on January 19, 2007.

Kobus then sued his former employer, alleging that his forced resignation from the College interfered with or denied his rights under the FMLA and discriminated against him in violation of the ADA and the Minnesota law.  When tried before the district court, summary judgment was granted to the College.  Kobus appealed.

The FMLA provides an eligible employee with twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year for reasons that include, “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.”  Under the law, the employer’s duties are triggered when the employee provides enough information to put the employer on notice that he (or she) may be in need of FMLA leave.  When seeking FMLA leave “sufficient information must be provided for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request.”  In this case, Kobus’s supervisor perceived a potential FMLA leave situation, told Kobus that he might be eligible for FMLA leave, and provided him with the College’s FMLA leave application form.  Kobus chose to put the form in a drawer and ignore it, while denying to his supervisor that he needed FMLA leave, or any leave at all.

When Kobus later told his supervisor that he needed “mental health leave,” his supervisor was found to be prudent by the court when he asked Kobus if he was requesting FMLA leave. When Kobus asked what was involved he was advised, “you’d have to get a doctor to sign some piece of paper to apply for the leave.” Kobus replied, “I don’t have a doctor. Is there any other way I can go?” When Kobus was advised that no other leave was available, he submitted his resignation instead of an FMLA leave application or doctor certification.  When the court viewed this information “in a light most favorable to Kobus,” they concluded that Kobus “failed to adequately state an intent to take FMLA leave.”

Kobus also attempted to make the argument to the court of appeals that the “Equal Opportunity Commission’s ADA Enforcement Guidance, lists that an employee’s request for time off because he is depressed or stressed  should be considered sufficient to put the employer on notice that the employee is requesting reasonable accommodation” without success.  The court found that none of their “prior ADA notice cases cited the Enforcement Guidance as controlling.  They instead found that those cases applied “the requirement in the regulations that an employee, inform the employer that an accommodation is needed.  Moreover they agreed with the district court that, “if the employee’s need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask for reasonable documentation concerning the employee’s disability and functional limitations,” which the college did in this case.

The Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit affirmed the findings of the lower court, ruling in favor of the College, to dismiss the plaintiff’s case against his employer.

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