United States: Third Circuit Expands FMLA Interpretation

Last Updated: July 4 2015
Article by Matthew C. Lonergan

In Deborah Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned a motion to dismiss granted to Lehigh Valley based on FMLA regulations and its interpretation regarding "insufficient medical certification." This decision could be significant as employers weigh their obligations under the FMLA against their right to deny an employee's request for leave.

Hansler worked as a technical partner at Lehigh Valley. In March 2013 she began experiencing shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. On March 13, Hansler submitted a medical certification form "requesting intermittent leave at a frequency of two times weekly starting on March 1, 2013 and lasting for a probable duration of one month—or until about April 1, 2013." Hansler then missed work on March 13, 14, 23, 24, and 25. Lehigh Valley never sought additional information from Hansler or her physician regarding the medical certification and terminated her employment on March 28 for absenteeism. When Hansler questioned why she was terminated after submitting the request for FMLA, she was provided a copy of a March 26 letter indicating that her leave had been denied because "her condition presently does not qualify as a serious health condition under the criteria set forth by the Medical Leave Act." Shortly thereafter, Hansler received a diagnosis of diabetes and high blood pressure, and claimed that these previously undiagnosed and untreated conditions were the cause of her March absences.

Hansler brought suit under the FMLA claiming she suffered from chronic serious health conditions and that she was improperly denied leave without being provided an opportunity to cure a deficient medical certificate. The district court dismissed Hansler's claim on the basis that she was not entitled to leave because the medical certification indicated her condition would only last one month and that such a short duration did not qualify as a chronic serious health condition, which has to persist for an "extended period of time." Although the subsequent diagnoses of diabetes and high blood pressure might have served as qualification if it had been originally provided, the review of Lehigh Valley's actions was based on the information it had at the time the request for leave was made.

The FMLA defines a serious health condition as, among other things, one that involves inpatient care in a hospital or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider, typically requiring periodic visits of at least twice a year by a healthcare provider and continuing over an extended period of time. Pursuant to the regulations, an employer must advise an employee whenever the employer determines that the medical certification is "incomplete or insufficient" and to state in writing what additional information is needed to make the certification complete and sufficient. The regulations further provide that a certification is "incomplete" if certain entries in the form have not been completed, and it is "insufficient" if the information provided is vague, ambiguous, or nonresponsive. If the employer determines that the certification is either incomplete or insufficient, it may deny the leave based on inadequate certification but only if it has provided the employee with seven calendar days to cure the deficiency.

The district court ruled that the certification was invalid on its face because the requested one-month leave did not meet the definition of an "extended period of time." Accordingly, Hansler's condition did not qualify as a chronic serious health condition and denial of her leave was appropriate. On appeal, Hansler claimed that Lehigh Valley interfered with the exercise of her FMLA rights and retaliated against her for seeking such leave. The Third Circuit ruled that the certification was, in fact, vague and ambiguous and was not a "negative certification" as determined by the lower court. The Court cited several other appellate decisions indicating that negative certifications are those in which a serious health condition does not prevent the employee from performing her job and held that Hansler's certification did not contain such a statement.

The Court determined that the language requesting leave "lasting for a probable duration of one month" was vague, ambiguous, and nonresponsive because it failed to specify whether the one-month duration referred to the length of the leave request or to the duration of her condition, thereby making it "insufficient" under the regulations. In the Court's view, the language related solely to the length of the leave request but did not indicate a serious health condition existed. Because of that ambiguity, Lehigh Valley should have provided notice of the deficiency and given Hansler seven days to cure it.

The Third Circuit also held that the relevant inquiry was not whether Lehigh Valley could have known that Hansler was suffering from a chronic health condition when she requested leave; rather, it was whether the certification was insufficient and/or incomplete. The fact that Hansler was diagnosed with her illnesses after she was terminated does not affect the determination of whether her medical certification was insufficient when it was submitted. The Court confirmed that Lehigh Valley's obligation upon receipt of the insufficient certification was to advise Hansler of the deficiencies and provide her the opportunity to cure. Lehigh Valley's failure to do so constituted interference with Hansler's rights under the FMLA.

As to Hansler's retaliation claim, the Court ruled that she met the statutory requirements of having invoked the right to leave and suffered an adverse employment decision. Having previously rejected the district court's decision that Hansler's request was not valid, the Court ruled that her claim for retaliation could not be dismissed at this stage of the litigation.

The dissenting opinion of Judge Roth focused on the fact that Lehigh Valley could only be assumed to make its decision based on the information it had when the request was presented, noting that there were no incomplete entries on the certification form and that the information was not vague, ambiguous, or nonresponsive. Judge Roth further noted that the medical certification accurately reflected her condition at the time of the request, which Lehigh Valley was within its right to reject.

This decision constitutes a fairly broad interpretation of the employer's obligations regarding incomplete or insufficient medical certifications and the opportunity to cure. An employer that exercises its right to deny a request for leave based on a certification that is neither incomplete nor vague on its surface may be leery of making such a decision given this development. A conservative approach would suggest that the employer should request additional information if the certification has any ambiguity or if the determination of whether the stated medical condition is a serious health condition could be subject to interpretation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Emails

From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.