The Family and Medical Leave Act – also routinely referred to as “FMLA” – entitles most workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. Workers can take up to 12 months in a given period, and it can be for anything from the birth of a child (within one year) to the serious health condition of a spouse to an illness that renders the employee unable to work.
What many people don’t realize about this act is that the time to which they are entitled doesn’t necessarily need to be taken all at once.
For example, if a worker injures her back and her doctor grants permission to take periodic time off work as needed for pain, there are allowances for that.
Unfortunately, many employers don’t realize this either, and workers may face disciplinary action or even wrongful termination for exercising these rights.
Such was reportedly the case in Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. Network, where a worker had applied for and used her FMLA for an unspecified medical condition that included symptoms of nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. Her employer, however, fired her for absenteeism after asserting her medical condition did not qualify as a serious health condition, rendering her request for medical leave “invalid.” Worker was later diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure.
Per the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the employer erred in failing to provide the employee with an opportunity to cure the defects in her request.
According to court records, plaintiff was hired as a a technical partner. Two years into her job, she began to experience these symptoms, which at the time were of an unknown origin.
Her doctor, following examination, completed a medical certification form that requested intermittent leave of up to twice weekly for up to a month. Worker submitted this request to her employer under FMLA.
Then, as a result of her condition, she was unable to work five days sporadically throughout that month.
At the end of the month, her employer, without taking action to inquire as to the medical certification from worker or her doctor, fired worker for absenteeism.
Plaintiff reminded her of the FMLA request, but it was at that time – for the first time – defendant employer informed her the request had been denied by the company because the condition didn’t qualify as a serious health condition under the federal medical leave act.
But after worker was fired, she did receive a diagnosis – diabetes and high blood pressure. She would later assert in litigation those previously-undiagnosed conditions were the reason for her missing work.
In her lawsuit, plaintiff alleged wrongful termination, motivated by retaliation for her seeking leave. She alleged employer was wrong to deny her request for leave without giving her the opportunity to address the deficiency.
District court dismissed plaintiff’s case for failure to state claim, finding the claim was defective because plaintiff’s request form indicated her illness would only last one month, but FMLA requires proof of a chronic, serious health condition that goes on for an extended period of time. Still, district court did note the timing for plaintiff was “unfortunate.”
Department of Labor regulations specifically state that companies, when receiving a deficiency (or perceived deficiency) in medical certifications for FMLA requests, need to tell workers in writing exactly what additional information is needed in order to make the certification complete. An employer can deny certification on the basis of being incomplete, but it has to give the worker at least seven days to remedy the filing.
That didn’t happen here. Thus, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. Network, June 22, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Work Permits for Undocumented Farm Workers in California, July 7, 2015, Orange County Wrongful Termination Lawyer Blog