Judge’s Decision Shows Why HR Professionals Must Train Supervisors On FMLA Procedures
Last month, in Moore v. GPS Hospitality Partners [i] , an Alabama judge granted a Burger King restaurant shift supervisor partial summary judgment on her FMLA interference claim. Lashondra Moore prevailed because her supervisors did not recognize that her initial requests for leave triggered her FMLA rights and did not understand how FMLA claims should be processed per the employer’s policy. The supervisors had many chances to recognize the rights that Moore tried to exercise, but ultimately terminated her without understanding the consequences.
The employer’s handbook provided that “[e]mployees should notify their supervisor and Human Resources for approval for a leave” and that “[a]ll employees requesting FMLA leave must provide Human Resources with verbal or written notice of the need for the leave.” The employer also had a policy that required its managers to (a) inform employees of their entitlement to FMLA leave, and (b) tell employees to contact Human Resources if they needed that leave.
Moore’s claim evolved over a 10-day period in February 2017. On Friday, February 3, Moore learned that her mother needed surgery to resolve an infection. While at work that day Moore told the restaurant manager, Chanavia Owes, that she needed a week off to care for her mother. Owes told Moore to “take all the time you need.” But, as explained below, Owes did not stick to that promise.
On February 5, at approximately 7 p.m., Owes notified Moore that she had to work the 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift on Monday, February 6 in place of Owes, who was sick. Moore advised Owes that she could not take the shift and sent a text to the district manager, Sheila Morrissette, asking her to find someone to cover Moore’s shift “for a few days please I have to be with my momma right now.”
Moore was scheduled to work from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7. On Monday night February 6, Owes texted Moore asking “are you going to be able to open in the morning?” Moore responded “no I … can’t come back for a few days.” Although Owes knew that Moore needed time off to care for her mother, she still instructed Moore to open the restaurant the next day.
On February 7, Moore arrived late to work after staying up late the night before to care for her mother and Owes gave Moore a disciplinary warning for tardiness. Moore was scheduled to work the early shift on Wednesday, February 8. However, given her previous requests for time off and the fact that Owes did not demand that Moore work Wednesday as she had on Tuesday, Moore concluded that she was not required to work on Wednesday and did not appear for work that morning. At approximately 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Owes notified Moore by text that her absence was taken as a “no call no show” and wrote a “final written warning” to Moore. At approximately 8 a.m. the same day, Morrissette texted Moore with another warning: “No call no show this morning? No phone call. One more will lead to termination.”
Later that day, Moore learned about her FMLA right to leave from her aunt. Moore went to the restaurant office and told both Owes and Morrissette that she needed to file for FMLA leave, which they said was fine. Moore handed Morrissette a note from her mother’s doctor and told Morrissette that her mother was in a very bad state and that she needed time off to tend to her. Moore asked Morrissette how to go about obtaining FMLA leave. Morrissette did not tell Moore that day or any day thereafter to contact Human Resources to apply for the leave. During Thursday and Friday, February 8 and February 9, Moore asked Morrissette several more times for the forms needed to file for FMLA leave. Morrissette’s response was always that she was working on it. Moore also asked Owes to help her obtain FMLA leave. But Owes admitted she knew nothing about the FMLA. At one point on February 9, Morrisette texted Moore the email address of the employer’s FMLA administrator without explanation. Moore did not understand the cryptic text and called Morrissette asking for guidance. Morrissette responded “I sent you what you needed, figure it out on your own.”
Moore arrived late to work on Sunday February 12 and Moore and Owes got into an argument over Moore’s schedule. Moore was terminated the next day, February 13.
The Court found that Owes’ failure to either notify Human Resources of Moore’s request for leave or tell Moore to do so, while requiring Moore to work several days afterwards, constituted an effective denial of Moore’s request for FMLA leave. In addition, the Court found that Moore’s situation constituted “unusual circumstances” under pertinent federal regulations, which justified her failure to comply with the employer’s rule requiring employees to notify Human Resources of requests for FMLA leave. Based on these findings, the Court held that the employer interfered with Moore’s FMLA rights.
The very clear takeaway for employers and HR professionals is that employers can end up in court, in a very bad spot, if supervisors are not sufficiently trained to recognize an employee’s request for FMLA leave and understand the procedures to process it.
[i] U.S. District Court, Southern District of Alabama, Southern Division, Case No. 17-0500-WS-N (June 3, 2019)