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More than half of employees surveyed report that they are burned out, according to a recent study. This burnout can cause complications. For Kyle, a firefighter-paramedic, it spurred miscommunication that led to his unwanted resignation. Or did he ask for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)? Here’s what happened.

The miscommunication

On August 21, Kyle worked a scheduled 24-hour shift. The morning of August 22, before he finished his assigned shift, Harry, his supervisor, told Kyle that he needed to work another 24-hour (overtime) shift. This resulted in Kyle working a 48-hour shift from 8:00 A.M. on August 21, through 8:00 A.M. on August 23, followed by another already scheduled 48-hour shift from 8:00 A.M. on August 24, through 8:00 A.M. on August 26.

After being informed of the additional shift, Kyle told Harry that he “couldn’t do it anymore” and that he “would turn his stuff in if he needed to.”

This statement led Harry to wonder what Kyle meant. Kyle didn’t explicitly say the words quit or resign, but, generally, it was understood that when you leave employment, you turn in your stuff. The employer asked if Kyle would like to put his intentions in writing, but Kyle declined. Harry asked Kyle if he intended to work two weeks, and Kyle replied “no.”

Two other officers told Harry that Kyle had been severely burned out lately and that Kyle’s decision was not permanent.

Despite this and further conversations between Kyle and Harry, Kyle did not retract his initial statement or request leave, but Kyle did mention that he would need to speak with his wife and “figure this out.”

The complication

Kyle came away from the conversations with the impression that he was welcome to return to work for his next scheduled shift and that something would be worked out, such as being transferred to a less-stressful position and being referred to the employee assistance program (EAP) for help.

The employer, on the other hand, had a different impression. Following the last conversation, Kyle was told that his verbal resignation was accepted and that he should turn in his gear.

The suit

Kyle sued, arguing that he hadn’t resigned, he had asked for FMLA leave. The employer argued that Kyle never put them on notice of the need for leave.

The court agreed with the employer, indicating that Kyle did not show that his burnout symptoms rendered him incapacitated, as required to give rise to a qualifying FMLA condition. It also agreed that Kyle never provided notice of the need for leave. Instead, his statements appeared to convey his intent to resign.

Friends, the FMLA does not require employers to be clairvoyant and divine unspoken (and even unthought) requests for FMLA leave. In this case, the employee didn’t ask for leave at all, so the employer won. Not all situations, however, are this clear cut.

Blake v. City of Montgomery, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-14229, November 8, 2021.

Key to remember: Miscommunication can lead to all sorts of issues, and this time the employee’s miscommunication led to an employer’s win in court.