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Employers Must Allow Workers to Amend Medical Leave Requests

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 24, 2015 4:27 PM

Employers cannot simply reject a faulty request for medical leave filed under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Third Circuit ruled on Monday. Rather, employers have a duty to inform their workers about their request's deficiency and allow them an opportunity to correct it.

The case came after Deborah Hansel, a nurse's assistant at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania, requested medical leave for a then undiagnosed condition. After taking days off, the hospital fired her. At her termination, the hospital only stated that her request was faulty and had been denied.

Hospital Fires Sick Employee

Handler experienced shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. Her doctor could not immediately diagnose her condition, but completed a medical certification form requesting twice weekly medical leave over the next month, which was submitted to Lehigh Valley in accordance with FMLA rules. 

Hansler then took five days off over the next two weeks. Lehigh Valley promptly fired her for excessive absenteeism. The company had made no further inquiry into her FMLA request, but said they had denied it for not demonstrating the she had a serious health condition. Handler learned of the denial and the hospital's reasons only when she was fired.

When Handler sued, her case was kicked out of district court. Since her condition wasn't diagnosed -- it turned out to be diabetes and high blood pressure -- and her request was only for a month, Handler could not show that she had a serious medical condition that would persist for an extended period of time, as required by the FMLA. The Third Circuit rejected that logic.

Cannot Just Reject Insufficient or Incomplete Requests

Department of Labor regulations require employers to notify employees of perceived deficiencies in FMLA requests. They must also notify the worker of what information would be needed to correct the incomplete or insufficient request. Handler's request, which failed to show a sufficient length of time or fully describe her medical condition, wasn't "negative on its face," as the District Court had ruled, but simply insufficient. As such, Handler was entitled to notice and a chance to amend the complaint.

Indeed, as the Third Circuit notes, neither the FMLA nor DOL regulations ever indicate that a request may be anything but incomplete or insufficient. There is no mention of a "facially negative" request that an employer can outright and silently reject. Though several circuit opinions refer to "negative certifications," those refer to doctors' statements saying that an employee does not have a condition that would prevent him or her from working.

Those circuits, the First, Sixth, and Seventh, allow employers to reject requests which are invalid on their face -- because the doctors refused to certify a serious medical condition, not because the request was ambiguous or non-responsive. That logic simply doesn't apply here, the Third ruled.

More Protection for Employees, More Responsibility for Employers

The ruling should offer greater protection to employees requesting medical leave while facing a new and not fully diagnosed condition, or who simply fail to submit the proper information. As the dissent notes, however, the ruling also greatly expands the duties of employers under the FMLA, who now have an affirmative duty to offer employees an opportunity to amend their faulty leave requests.

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