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7th Circuit affirms firing for non-compliance with FMLA leave policy

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment dismissing a woman’s Family and Medical Leave Act claim against the company that fired her because she didn’t give proper notice for an extension of leave and failed to return to work as expected.

Letecia Brown sued Ford Motor Co. after she was fired for not reporting to work or explaining in writing or by phone why she didn’t come to work following an approved FMLA leave. Brown’s original FMLA leave expired Aug. 28 and she was to return to work the following day. Because she couldn’t get an appointment with a psychiatrist until the day she was to return to work, she didn’t go back to work as expected and failed to properly notify Ford within two days of learning Aug. 21 she had to extend her leave as required by policy.

Brown claimed to speak by phone with a nurse at the plant’s medical clinic on Aug. 30, telling the nurse that her doctor had extended her leave to Sept. 16. Ford had no record of this call and sent her certified mail notifying her that she had five days to return to work or explain why she was absent or else she would be fired. She didn’t pick up the mail and was fired Sept. 11.

She filed several suits against the company, but the only one at issue is her claim Ford interfered with her FMLA rights. The District Court originally denied summary judgment for Ford because it found the Aug. 30 phone call provided sufficient notice of Brown’s intent to extend her FMLA leave because it happened with two working days of the expiration of her original leave. But the court later reconsidered because the FMLA regulations require employees to give notice within one to two working days of learning about the need for leave, and granted judgment in favor of Ford dismissing the claim.

The undisputed facts show Brown learned of her need to extend her FMLA on Aug. 21 but failed to notify Ford, wrote Judge Diane Sykes in Letecia D. Brown v. Automotive Components Holdings, LLC and Ford Motor Co., No. 09-1641. The judges went on to confirm that Ford was well within its rights for FMLA purposes to fire Brown according to its standard leave procedures.

Brown raised three new arguments on appeal, which even if they weren’t waived, would fail, noted Judge Sykes. The court rejected her argument that she complied with FMLA regulations because she provided notice as soon as practicable because Brown didn’t show it was impractical for her to give notice on Aug. 21.

The court wasn’t persuaded by her other arguments either – that Ford’s 5-day quit notice was an explicit waiver of its right to rely on the one or two working days’ notice provision of the FMLA; that by not firing her on the day she failed to return to work, the company waived its right to rely on the FMLA provisions governing notice; and her phone call to the nurse was a request for new FMLA leave instead of an extension of her original leave.

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