Tuesday, June 23, 2015

FMLA - oppty. to cure insufficient medical certification - 3d Cir.


Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network – 3d Cir. – June 22, 2015

 


 

Deborah Hansler requested intermittent leave from her former employer, Lehigh Valley Health Network, under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. She submitted a medical certification requesting leave for two days a week for approximately one month.  The medical certification refers to the length of her requested leave but not the nature or duration of her condition.  A few weeks later, after she took several days off work, Lehigh Valley terminated Hansler’s employment without seeking any clarification about her medical certification, as required by law.  Lehigh Valley cited excessive absences and informed her that the request for leave had been denied.  Hansler sued Lehigh Valley for violations of the Medical Leave Act, and the District Court dismissed the complaint on the basis that the medical certification supporting Hansler’s request for leave was “invalid.” We conclude that, in failing to afford Hansler a chance to cure any deficiencies in her medical certification, Lehigh Valley violated the Medical Leave Act. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

 

The Department of Labor’s regulations govern how employers are to respond to perceived deficiencies in medical certifications. An employer “shall advise an employee whenever the employer finds a certification incomplete or insufficient, and shall state in writing what additional information is necessary to make the certification complete and sufficient.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c). A certification is “incomplete” if the “employer receives a certification, but one or more of the applicable entries have not been completed.” Id. A certification is “insufficient” if the “employer receives a complete certification, but the information provided is vague, ambiguous, or non-responsive.” Id. If the employer determines that a certification is either incomplete or insufficient, it may deny the requested leave on the basis of an inadequate certification. But it may only do so if it has “provide[d] the employee with seven calendar days (unless not practicable under the particular circumstances despite the employee’s diligent good faith efforts) to cure any such deficiency.” Id.; see Hansen v. Fincantieri Marine Grp., LLC, 763 F.3d 832, 837 (7th Cir. 2014) (“[T]he regulations do not authorize the employer to deny FMLA leave where the employee fails to provide a complete and sufficient certification but is not given the opportunity to cure the deficiency.”).

 

Hansler does not argue on appeal that her certification established the “extended period of time” requirement under the FMLA, and we do not decide that issue here.   Instead, Hansler maintains she was entitled to the cure period set forth in the regulations because the certification was insufficient, rather than negative on its face. We agree.  When a certification submitted by an employee is “vague, ambiguous, or non-responsive” the employer must, under 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c), provide the employee an opportunity to cure the deficiency within seven days.   Cf. cases discussing negative certifications.  Although the First, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits appear to agree that “employers have no responsibility to conduct further investigation when a certification is invalid on its face,” the cases discussing negative certifications do not apply where a court or employer are considering an ambiguous or non-responsive certification. Hoffman, 394 F.3d at 418-19.

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