Granting summary judgment to an employer on Family and Medical Leave Act claims asserted by a former employee, an Illinois district court held that: (1) the employee had failed to demonstrate his firing had any causal relationship to his prior FMLA leave (or any potential future need for FMLA leave); and (2) the employer’s initial denial of FMLA leave was justified based on the plaintiff’s failure to provide sufficient medical documentation justifying his wife’s “serious health condition.” Davidson v. Evergreen Park Community High School District 231, No. 15 C 0039, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 77724 (N.D. Ill. May 23, 2017).

The former employee, Brad Davidson, a high school science teacher, sued Evergreen Park Community High School District 231 alleging he was fired for using FMLA leave and the District unlawfully denied him leave or use of leave to take care of his wife from August 19-22, 2014, as required by the FMLA.

Davidson was hired by the District in August 1995. He was placed on a Performance Development Plan (“PDP”) in 2013 after receiving “Needs Improvement” on his tenured teacher evaluation. Pursuant to the Illinois School Code, part of the evaluation process included the use of sick leave. After Davidson failed to improve, the Board of Education voted to terminate him on April 1, 2015, in accordance with the Illinois School Code.

Magistrate Judge Rowland acknowledged that Davidson engaged in protected activity when he took FMLA leave and that he suffered an adverse employment action when he was terminated. However, the court held Davidson failed to establish the District terminated his employment because he took FMLA leave (or because he might do so in the future). The Magistrate Judge relied on Davidson’s poor job performance over several years and found he has not demonstrated the reasons given for his termination were pretextual.

The court found significant that the remediation plan was prepared in consultation with the District’s attorney and was created five months before Davidson’s requested FMLA leave in August 2014.

The undisputed evidence showed Davidson’s employment was terminated solely because he failed to remediate his “Unsatisfactory” job performance during a three-year teacher evaluation and remediation period and not because of his FMLA leave. Similarly, Davidson failed to provide any evidence of a causal connection between his discharge and his possible future need for or use of FMLA leave.

Davidson also alleged the District unlawfully denied him FMLA leave from August 19-22, 2014. Although, after receiving proper medical documentation, the District granted Davidson’s FMLA request, he asserted the initial denial of leave was unlawful. While an employee is entitled to FMLA leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition, he must alert his employer to the “seriousness of the health condition” when requesting leave. “Merely contacting the employer about illness-related absences does not adequately communicate the seriousness of the medical condition.” Here, the only information provided by Davidson with regard to his August 19 absence was a voicemail message stating that “due to a serious family health emergency, [he] would be out of school.” After he called in sick again on August 20, the superintendent requested that Davidson provide her with a physician’s certificate substantiating the reasons for his absence. On August 21, Davidson told the superintendent he was “working with [his wife’s] physicians to get both her urgent immediate and intermediate healthcare needs met.” On August 22, he submitted a letter from his wife’s physician that stated, “Ms. Davidson is a patient of mine, who first presented on 8/15/2014. Since then she has had office visits, phone consultations, been refered [sic] to physical therapy and prescribed education and decreased activity.” After reviewing the letter, the superintendent determined Davidson’s wife did not have a “serious health condition,” and thus, Davidson did not qualify for either the District’s leave policy or FMLA leave.

Magistrate Judge Rowland held that Davidson did not provide the employer with any specific information with respect to his wife’s medical condition, diagnosis, prognosis, or the amount of time that he would need to be off work. Such terms as “serious” and “urgent” are too vague. Because the doctor’s note from his wife’s physician did not convey the seriousness of her medical condition, as a matter of law, it was inadequate to put the District on notice that Davidson was seeking FMLA and his spouse suffered from a serious medical condition.

Lessons: Employee coaching and performance improvement and counseling are important. Here, the employer was able to demonstrate job performance issues before the employee’s requests for leave. However, it was equally important that appropriate coaching, counseling, and performance management continued while the employer was managing the employee’s leave requests as it would with any other employee. Further, when presented with documentation in support of a leave request, employers should review and analyze it, determine whether it satisfies a “serious health condition” and, if not, to question it and request additional information. The employer did just that in this case, and its initial denial of the plaintiff’s FMLA leave request was upheld as justified.