Recently, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – which covers Pennsylvania and New Jersey — ruled in Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. Network that if an employer does not permit an employee seven days to cure an insufficient medical certification, the employer may have interfered with the employee’s rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Medical certifications are one of the trickiest areas for employers when it comes to FMLA compliance, so let’s take a deeper look at this case.
In 2013, Hansler submitted a medical certification from her physician requesting intermittent leave for approximately one month due to nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Without acting on Hansler’s request for leave under the FMLA, her employer, Lehigh Valley Health Network, terminated her before the end of the month because of excessive absences. When Hansler was told she was being fired, she reminded her employer that she had requested time off under the FMLA. In response, Lehigh Valley informed her that her request was denied because her condition didn’t qualify as a serious health condition under the criteria set forth by the FMLA.
The wrinkle is that this was the first time Hansler learned that her request for leave was denied. Because of that, Hansler argued that she was not given the opportunity to clarify or cure her medical certification, and said if Lehigh Valley would have identified the deficiencies of her medical certification her physician could have provided further information to justify that she did, in fact, have a serious health condition. When that view fell on deaf ears, Hansler sued under the FMLA for – among other things – interfering with her rights to medical leave.
The District Court where the case was first filed granted Lehigh Valley’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. That Court concluded Hansler was not entitled to leave or a cure period because her medical certification demonstrated on its face that she did not have a serious health condition in the first instance. In FMLA practice, these are considered “negative” certifications. This simply means that whatever health condition is identified on the certification is not one protected by the Act. According to the District Court, the FMLA mandates that a health condition must persist for an “extended period of time” and not only one month as requested by Hansler. She appealed.
In its opinion, the Third Circuit sided with Hansler and believed that she was entitled to cure the deficiencies within seven days, pursuant to federal regulation 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c), because her medical certification was simply insufficiently completed, rather than a “negative” certification. The Third Circuit’s problem was that Hansler’s medical certification was unclear as to whether the one month duration referred only to the length of her leave request or to the duration of her condition. According to the Court, Lehigh Valley should have (1) advised Hansler that her certification was insufficient, (2) stated in writing what additional information was necessary to make it sufficient, and (3) provided her with an opportunity to cure before denying her request for leave.
This case is a great illustration of the difficulties which employers often have to contend with while evaluating the sufficiency of an employee’s medical certification under the FMLA. Sometimes, the condition described isn’t clear. Sometimes, the duration of the described condition is hard to decipher. The Hansler case reminds employers everywhere that, regardless of how certifications may be deficient, employees are often given some leeway under the FMLA – including second chances – when it comes to making them right. Employers should keep that in mind before seizing on what it believes to be a medical certification that does not properly support granting leave under the FMLA.