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Undiagnosed depression, post-employment hospitalization supported jury finding of FMLA interference

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

Although the employee’s doctor did not examine her while she was working for the employer, the Seventh Circuit has found that an employee does not need to be diagnosed during her employment, as long as the condition existed then.

A federal district court did not err in denying an employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict awarding an employee $12,000 in damages on her FMLA interference claim, ruled the Seventh Circuit. The appeals court concluded that in view of the employee’s testimony, as corroborated by her medical records, the jury could reasonably conclude that she had a serious health condition that made her unable to perform the functions of her job while she was working for the employer. Moreover, the employer had adequate notice of the employee’s condition through her conduct, as well as through conversations she had with a school principal (Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, November 12, 2019, Wood, D.).

For approximately six years, the employee worked as an administrative assistant at a high school. During her time there, she received excellent performance evaluations. She was never disciplined and rarely took sick days. After learning about a new opening within the school district, she applied for and was promoted in June 2016 to the post of assistant to the principal at another high school.

Deteriorating mental state. Shortly after she started work in her new position, the employee’s mental state started to deteriorate. She had trouble sleeping, eating, and getting out of bed, and she lacked energy. In July her symptoms worsened: she experienced insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate, and exhaustion. She began going into work late because she could not drag herself out of bed, and she started leaving work early because she could not control her crying.

The employee did not attempt to conceal her symptoms. She met with the principal and told her that she was feeling overwhelmed, had lost weight, was not able to sleep, and was not hungry. About two days after the initial conversation, they met again and the employee described what was happening to her in detail. The employee asked for a ten-month position, but the principal declined the request. She stated that she was considering another job offer. Shortly thereafter, the two had a third conversation, and the principal told the employee she needed to decide whether she was staying or leaving. The employee started crying.

The employee and principal had four or five more conversations to discuss whether the employee was going to accept another job offer. The conversations were inconclusive because of the employee’s uncontrollable crying. At one point in August, the employee told the principal that she was considering leaving “for medical reasons,” and again asked for a ten-month job.

Pressured to resign. Feeling pressure from the principal to decide whether she was staying or leaving, the employee submitted her letter of resignation. Regretting that decision, she attempted to rescind her resignation, but the principal denied her request.

Diagnosis. The employee visited her doctor and was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication. She began a new job, but was able to work for only four days before quitting. Ultimately, she was hospitalized and given medication for anxiety and major depressive disorder. Her doctor testified that it would be “difficult for anyone to work” with the employee’s symptoms.

FMLA interference win. The employee sued claiming that the employer interfered with her rights under the FMLA by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-related leave. A jury returned a verdict in the employee’s favor and awarded her $12,000 in damages. The employer moved for judgment as a matter of law, but the district court denied the motion.

This appeal followed. The employer argued that no reasonable juror could find that (a) the employee was entitled to leave under the FMLA or (b) the employee provided it with adequate notice.

Serious health condition. The appeals court found that the evidence in the record was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the employee had a serious health condition. Shortly after she left her job with the school district, she was hospitalized for four days with symptoms identical to those she had described to the principal. Extrapolating from that hospitalization, the jury could conclude that while she was employed by the school district, she had a “mental condition” that involved “inpatient care in a hospital.” Further, at trial, the employee provided detailed testimony describing her condition and symptoms she experienced from June through August 2016, and her medical records corroborated this testimony. Accordingly, the jury reasonably found that the employee suffered from a serious health condition.

A reasonable jury could also conclude that because of her serious health condition, the employee was unable to perform the functions of her job. Although her doctor did not examine her while she was working for the employer, the Seventh Circuit has found that an employee does not need to be diagnosed during her employment, as long as the condition existed then. Here, the employee’s testimony indicated that she exhibited symptoms for weeks, and her medical records supported the fact that her condition did not arise for the first time on the day she saw the doctor.

Thus, viewing the testimony and medical records in the light most favorable to the employee, the appeals court found no reason to disturb the jury’s conclusion that the employee had a serious health condition that made her unable to perform the functions of her job while she was working for the employer.

Adequacy of notice. Moreover, the appeals court determined that the employer had adequate notice of the employee’s serious health condition through her conduct, as well as through her direct reports. 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. Here, the employee met with her principal on several occasions to report her deteriorating mental health. She asked for the accommodation of a ten-month position rather than a 12-month position, even though she did not expressly mention the FMLA when she made the request. The jury was entitled to conclude that this was timely and actual notice to the employer.

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed.