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Thursday, July 07, 2011

No FMLA protections based on incomplete medical certification


No FMLA protections based on incomplete medical certification
Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved by Carl C. Bosland, Esq. Reproduced with permission. Mr. Bosland is the author of A Federal Sector Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act & Related Litigation.

Janet Lewis was employed as a civilian in the Air Force as Director of the Elmendorf Air Force Base Child Development Center.  She requested 120 days of FMLA leave due to her own serious health condition. The Agency required Lewis to support her request for leave with the WH-380 medical certification form.  Lewis had her doctor fill out the form, which she submitted in support of her leave request. At the same time, she submitted a prescription from her doctor, and a 2006 letter from another doctor.  Kathleen DeShasier, Lewis's supervisor, told her the documents she submitted were insufficient to support her request for FMLA leave.  Lewis refused to submit more information, believing that she had provided all the information necessary under the FMLA.  When she failed to show up for work, the Agency fired her AWOL.  She appealed her removal through the administrative and federal district court, without success. 

Before the Ninth Circuit, Lewis argued that the documents she submitted provided sufficient medical facts to support the conclusion that she suffered from an FMLA-covered serious health condition. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.  Lewis's WH-380, the court observed, "states only that she was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needed therapy, medical treatment, bed rest, two prescriptions medications, and 120 days off work." 

Significantly, the Court found that the WH-380 form was incomplete because it failed to-

1. provide a summary of the medical facts that support the diagnosis;

2. contain an explanation as to why Lewis was unable to perform her work duties; and

3. address what additional treatments would be required for her condition.

The   rejected Lewis's alternative argument that she submitted adequate medical documentation to the HR department in support of her workers’ compensation claim. 

Along with her OWCP claim, Lewis did, the Court found, submit medical documents and a detailed diagnosis.  

However, Lewis did not deliver the OWCP documents to her supervisor. Instead, she specifically requested that the HR department keep her medical records confidential and out of her supervisor's hands.  In so doing, the Court essentially found that Lewis could not rely on her OWCP documents as a way to supplement her incomplete WH-380.

Mr. Bosland Comments:  To substantiate an employee's request for serious health condition FMLA leave, an employer may require the employee to submit a complete medical certification.  The permissible content of that certification is governed by federal regulations.  To determine whether the leave is covered by the FMLA, an employer may not require an employee to provide more medical information than is permitted by law.  While an employer may voluntarily agree to accept a medical certification with less medical information than permitted  (employers are not mandated to require any medical certification), they are perfectly within their rights to insist that they receive a complete medical certification. 

Some employee's are very reluctant to disclose their medical condition to their supervisor or employer when requesting leave.  They fear that their highly confidential medical information will "get out" and become fodder for the office rumor mill.  These employees tend to offer sparse medical certifications.  These certifications may even have something written in every area of the WH-380 form, but the information provided is either incomplete or useless.  When offered the chance to submit additional information, these employees, like Lewis, often refuse.   

Employees who refuse to provide additional information run the considerable risk of losing FMLA protections.  As with Lewis, employees who forge ahead and take the leave anyway in the belief that they did provide a complete medical certification, and that the employer is wrong, run the considerable risk of being disciplined for AWOL.  Before risking your job, employees better be certain that they are right and their employer is wrong on this issue.  Check with your union, the US Department of Labor, or an attorney. 

Note that the Court rejected Lewis's argument that she satisfied her FMLA medical certification by providing additional medical information to the HR department as part of the OWCP claim. While the Court did not spell it out, the implication is that she was required to submit her FMLA request to her supervisor, not the HR department.  Moreover, she specifically asked that her OWCP medical documents be kept confidential including from her supervisor. 

Providing medical information, but not to the right person or office, is another (failed) tactic frequently used by employees who don't want to disclose information to their supervisor even though that is what may be required by the employer's policy.  For example, as in Lewis, employees will send their medical documentation to a medical or OWCP unit with confidentiality restrictions, and then claim that they satisfied the FMLA because they provided the certification to their employer writ large.   

Where the employer has a policy or practice requiring the employee to request leave and provide supporting medical certification through the immediate supervisor or a specified office, providing the medical documentation to some other unit of the employer will not secure the protections of the FMLA.  Courts have not allowed employees to game the system by providing supporting medical documentation to someone within the company, but outside of the policy or practice.   

Lewis v. USA, No. 10-35624 (9th Cir. May 26, 2011), http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/05/26/10-35624.pdf

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