Employers May Not Deny FMLA Leave Requests Without Allowing an Opportunity to Cure a Deficient Medical Certification

October 5, 2015

On September 17, 2015, the New Jersey Appellate Division emphasized that an employer has “modest burdens” to not only advise employees of their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), but also must advise employees of any deficiencies in medical certifications and provide an opportunity to cure.

In Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, the plaintiff submitted a medical certification requesting leave for two days per week for one month following a variety of health-related issues. The certification lacked the nature or duration of the condition, but did specify the length of time requested.  Several weeks later, the plaintiff was terminated for absenteeism.  When the plaintiff mentioned her submission of the medical certification, the defendant informed the plaintiff that her request had been denied.  Following her termination, plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure.  Plaintiff alleged that Lehigh Valley Health Network interfered with her substantive rights to medical leave and that she was terminated in retaliation for seeking leave in violation of the FMLA.  The trial court held that the medical certification was invalid and that Lehigh Valley Health Network was not required to afford the plaintiff time to cure the defect.  In granting Lehigh Valley Health Network’s motion to dismiss, the trial court found that since the official diagnosis of the plaintiff’s medical condition occurred post-termination, it was of no consequence.

The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the trial court and found that insufficiency alone is not enough to deny a FMLA leave request outright.  The Appellate Division held that employees must not only be notified of what additional information is required but also be allotted a period of time to cure any such defect.  The Court also noted that the post-termination diagnosis did not affect the determination of whether the medical certification was insufficient since, had the defendant requested more information, the plaintiff’s physician would have been in a position to provide the same.  Because the plaintiff was not notified of any deficiencies, she was not provided with a cure period, and thus, the Appellate Division remanded for further proceedings consistent with its ruling.

Employers’ Takeaways: 

  • Under the FMLA, an employee must give notice of the request, including a reason for the request. To be considered “sufficient,” an employee’s medical certification must include: (1) the date on which the serious health condition began; (2) the probable duration of the condition; (3) the relevant medical facts; (4) a statement that the employee is unable to perform the functions of their position; (5) the dates and duration of any planned medical treatment; and (6) the expected duration of intermittent leave.
  • Upon receiving an insufficient or incomplete FMLA leave request, employers are required to: (1) advise employees that the certification is insufficient; (2) state in writing what additional information is necessary to cure the deficiency; and (3) provide the employee an opportunity to cure the certification before denying the request.
  • An employer may deny the request for FMLA if it has provided the employee with seven calendar days to cure any such deficiency and the employee has failed to do so.
  • An employer may not interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or an employee’s attempt to exercise rights under the FMLA.

For more information regarding this decisions and best practices regarding FMLA, please contact John C. Petrella, Director of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group at jpetrella@genovaburns.com or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@genovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

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