Posted on Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015.
Employer’s Should Pay Close Attention to FMLA Certifications
The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) Medical Certification forms and accompanying procedures are things that employers sometimes do not pay close enough attention to, and a new decision from the Third Circuit reiterates why they require particular care and employee training. The United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) has an optional FMLA Medical Certification form which many employers use, but employers are also free to create and use their own Medical Certification forms provided the form contains the appropriate information as outlined in 29 C.F.R. § 825.306. Regardless of whether the DoL form or one created by the employer, not following the procedure in obtaining a valid medical certification can result in a claim by an employee of the employer interfering with the individual’s FMLA rights.
In Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. Network, 2015 WL 3825049, at *1 (3d Cir. June 22, 2015): In March of 2013, the plaintiff, an employee of Lehigh Valley Hospital, began experiencing shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting. Because the cause of her symptoms were unknown to her doctor at the time, he completed a FMLA medical certification form on March 13, 2013, “requesting intermittent leave at a frequency of 2 times weekly starting on March 1, 2013 and lasting for a probable duration of one month- or until about April 1, 2013.” Id.
The employer denied the plaintiff’s request for intermittent leave on March 26, 2013, due to an insufficient medical certification. The denial occurred after the employee had already missed five days of work due to her condition. Id. The employer then terminated her on March 28, 2013 for excessive absenteeism. Id. The plaintiff’s doctor subsequently diagnosed her with high blood pressure and diabetes in April 2013 as the cause of the symptoms, which required her to be absent from work for five days in March 2013. Id.
The employee then filed a lawsuit against her former employer, alleging both interference and retaliation for requesting and using FMLA leave. Id. at *3 She alleged that she was not given proper notice that her form was insufficient, nor was she given seven days to cure the certification form, as allowed under 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c). Id. The lower court dismissed the employee’s claims, stating that because the employee only requested leave for one month, she could not have a “serious health condition” under the FMLA because her condition did not require treatment for an extended period of time. Id. The lower court further held that the medical certification provided by the employee was “invalid,” and thus, the employee was therefore not entitled to cure it under 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c).
The Third Circuit held that other circuits have found “negative certifications” to be “invalid” when they contain physicians statements that the employee would not miss any work, thereby meaning those employees did not have a “serious health condition” under FMLA. Id. In this case, however, the Court determined that the employee’s certification was “vague and nonresponsive insofar as it request[ed] intermittent leave for one month but fail[ed] to specify whether the one month duration refers only to the length of her leave request or to the duration of her condition.” Id. at *4
The Court held that the employee should have been notified of the medical certification’s deficiencies, advised what information was necessary to make it sufficient, and provided with an opportunity to cure it before her request for FMLA leave was denied. Id. at *5. Accordingly the Court held that the employee properly stated a claim for interference under the FMLA. Similarly, with respect to her retaliation claim, the court held that “through discovery, the employee might be able to show that Lehigh Valley had a retaliatory motive and that the stated reason for termination was pretextual.” Id. at *7
Employers should be aware of the Hansler decision and review their FMLA medical certification forms, and their policies and procedures in processing FMLA leave requests in light of this decision. Hansler reiterates that employees who submit FMLA insufficient medical certification forms must be given an opportunity to cure those forms under the FMLA. For assistance in evaluating your business’s FMLA medical certification forms, or if you have any questions about any other labor and employment matter, please contact any member of Trimboli & Prusinowski, LLC at 973-660-1095 for assistance.