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Death of a family member ends one kind of FMLA leave, but may begin another

Jill Jensen-Welch Iowa Employment & Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 08/28/2010 at 01:54 PM by Jill Jensen-Welch

The Family Medical Leave Act does not mandate or protect funeral or bereavement leave.  FMLA leave to care for a covered family member's serious health condition ends if the family member dies.  That does not necessarily mean the end of all FMLA.  Such a death may signal the beginning of a new FMLA leave for the employee's own serious health condition in reaction to that death. 

Take the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued August 26, 2010, in Murphy v. FedEx National LTL, Inc.  Susan Murphy and her husband each worked at FedEx as a truck driver.  When her husband was hospitalized, Murphy took a short FMLA leave to care for him, but he died quickly and unexpectedly.  After three days of bereavement leave, Murphy's manager called to discuss her leave.  Murphy was correctly told that her FMLA ended when her husband died.  She was asked how much more time she needed and she said she needed 30 days "to take care of things." Her manager said, "Okay, cool, not a problem, I'll let HR know." Human Resources denied the additional 30 days of leave.  Apparently, HR did not consider that Murphy, herself, might be experiencing a serious health condition that could qualify for FMLA leave.  Without approved leave, Murphy was terminated.  As Scooby Doo would say, "Ruh roh." 

Employers who deny leave and terminate an employee shortly after the death of the spouse are itching for a fight. Murphy sued, claiming she should have received FMLA for her own serious health condition (depression after the death of her husband), and that she thought her manager had approved it.  The jury found for Murphy.  FedEx appealed.  The Eighth Circuit held that although Murphy never mentioned any diagnosis or symptoms, she put on enough evidence for a jury to find that, considering the totality of the circumstances, she had been seeking FMLA leave for herself.  Murphy proved that FedEx knew about the unexpected nature of her husband's death, that she had worked with her husband at the company for many years, and that she said she was unable to work the night shift because it reminded her too much of her husband.  In addition, the context of the entire conversation was a discussion about prior FMLA leave and the need for additional leave. Altogether, that was enough.

Please contact Jill Jensen-Welch with any questions you may have regarding FMLA leave.  

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.

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