"I'm Sick, I'm Dizzy and My Head Hurts!" Responding to Vague FMLA Requests

by Lana L. Rupprecht, Esq. - AVP Product Compliance

September 19, 2023


What would you do if an employee called you stating the following?

  • "I'm sick, I'm dizzy and my head hurts! There's a family emergency."
  • "Please accept my doctor's note!" (And the note states: "Please excuse from work on 9/4/18. He had an app...")
  • "My back and shoulder hurt...I need FMLA paperwork."
  • "These last three days have my migraines in overdrive."

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) regulations require employees to provide notice of leave to employers. Employees seeking FMLA leave for the first time do not need to specifically reference the FMLA but must provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request. This may include details such as the time an employee needs off, that the employee is pregnant or has been hospitalized, or that a family member needs care. 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(c) and825.303(b). Calling in "sick", without more, is insufficient notice. But how does that work in the real world?

How should an employer respond to the type of requests above? Each of these examples are based on actual cases.

  • "I'm sick, I'm dizzy and my head hurts! There's a family emergency."
    In the case, McIntire v. BNSF Railway Co. (N.D. Tx. 2021), an employee requested leave because he felt "disoriented, dizzy, not safe for work, and had a family emergency." Is this sufficient FMLA notice? The court said no, in part, because the employee previously took intermittent FMLA leave, so he knew the process and failed to identify a specific medical condition for the new request. The court said employers are not required to be "clairvoyant."
  • Doctor's note stating: "Please excuse from work on 9/4/18. He had an app..."
    In Williams v. Outokumpu Stainless (S.D. Ala.2021), an employee texted his supervisor a photo of this doctor's note: "Please excuse from work on 9/4/18. He had an app." The court found this was insufficient notice under the FMLA and that a doctor's note saying an employee "had an appointment, without more, does not entitle [the employee] to FMLA and was not sufficient to have the point erased under [the employer's] attendance policy." The court further said even if it was sufficient, the employee failed to follow the employer's usual and customary notice requirements.
  • "My back and shoulder hurt...I need FMLA paperwork."
    In Allison v. Paratech, Inc. (N.D. Ill. 2021), an employee with back pain asked for FMLA paperwork. Weeks later, he missed work and texted his supervisor an image of a doctor's appointment without additional information. The employee was fired for multiple absences that violated company policy and sued. The question of whether the initial notice was sufficient under the FMLA was disputed but the court found no FMLA violation as the employee never submitted a completed FMLA request stating: "The FMLA does not require employers to play Sherlock Holmes, scanning an employee's work history for clues as to the undisclosed, true reason for an employee's absence."
  • "I have a migraine."
    In Ormond v. CTVSEH PLLC (W.D. Tex. 2021), the court found that an employee's text messages to her supervisor discussing her migraines and seizures, were not sufficient to put the employer on notice that she needed FMLA leave for an extended period of time. The court stated, "Plaintiff's texts merely informed Defendant that she was taking time off and did not request extended leave for a serious health condition."

Check out our prior blog discussing dual call in procedures:
One FMLA Call-In Number or Two? Employers Can Pick But Should Make It Clear

Tips for Employers:

Employers should be proactive to ensure their supervisors and employees are equipped to handle FMLA situations properly:

  • Require training to help managers understand employee rights and obligations under the FMLA. This becomes more problematic as employees use texts, emails, and instant messages to communicate absences. Train managers to spot potential FMLA situations, regardless of information provided and refer to human resources (HR) or leave administrators immediately.
  • Adopt clear attendance reporting policies: Require employees to provide specific reasons for absences and to call when requesting leave so HR can gather enough information to make FMLA determinations. Consider implementing a dual call-in policy that, for example, includes one phone call to the supervisor or team leader and one phone call to HR or the company's leave administrator.
  • Educate your employees too: Employees can't be expected to understand the FMLA and its requirements without some help. Consider providing employees with (and require them to read) the Department of Labor's Employee's Guide to FMLA. You might be surprised to hear us say this, but this little booklet is actually very good in that it not only explains employee FMLA rights, but also outlines the obligations an employee has when they need leave for an FMLA-covered reason.

Reliance Matrix Can Help!

Reliance Matrix offers employers federal and state leave administration and accommodation services, including helping manage and navigate some complex FMLA requests. For more information, contact your Reliance Matrix account manager or send us a message to [email protected].

Through its insurance and administrative services entities, Reliance Matrix offers integrated leave management services involving the FMLA, state-mandated paid family and medical leave and accommodation solutions. Product features and availability may vary by state. For more information, please contact your Reliance Matrix account manager, or reach us at [email protected].