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Sixth Circuit Reinforces the Significance of FMLA Notice Requirements and Employer Obligations with Medical Certification Forms

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By Tyler Tarney

September 17, 2014

The Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is a federal statute that attempts to strike the balance between the competing business interests of employers and the family and medical needs of employees. It provides qualified employees with flexibility when faced with a qualifying life event without fear of losing their jobs, while also providing covered employers with the information necessary to make adjustments in the workplace. The Sixth Circuit’s recent Wallace v. FedEx decision rejected an employer’s attempt to deny FMLA leave based on an employee’s failure to return a medical certification form, which asked about the anticipated duration of the leave, because the employer—who already knew the FMLA leave had been requested—failed to adequately explain the consequences of not returning the form. This decision reiterates the significance of the FMLA’s notice requirements, and also emphasizes the important obligations triggered for employers once they know that a request for FMLA leave has been made.

The employee’s burden of providing proper notice is not significant. Employees must provide reasonable notice of their request for qualifying leave “as soon as practicable under the facts and circumstances.” When providing notice, employees need not expressly mention or assert rights under the FMLA—they can merely state that leave is needed and the employer will be expected to obtain additional information. But employees generally must also note the anticipated timing and duration of the leave. Under the Department of Labor regulations, employers can ask employees to provide a medical certification to verify their condition. These forms provide employers with information regarding the reason for the leave, the type of leave, and the anticipated duration of the leave. If an employer requests a medical certification form and the employee’s need for leave was not foreseeable, employers must give employees at least fifteen days to return the form. If an employee never produces the requested medical certification, the requested leave is not FMLA leave so long as the employer sufficiently explains—at the time the medical certification is requested—“the anticipated consequences” of failing to provide adequate certification.

The issue in the Sixth Circuit’s recent Wallace v. FedEx decision was whether an employee who notified her employer of her intention to take FMLA leave, but did not initially indicate the anticipated duration of that leave, discharged her notice obligations when she failed to return a requested medical certification form that asked about the duration of the leave. The employer, FedEx, failed to explain the need for the form or the consequence for failing to return it. FedEx argued that in failing to provide the form the employee failed to provide notice that she needed a certain amount of leave and that it justifiably terminated her as a result. The employee, on the other hand, argued that no one told her that if she didn’t return the form within the 15 days that she would be fired. At trial, the jury agreed and found that FedEx interfered with her FMLA leave. FedEx appealed to the Sixth Circuit, who rejected its argument because it was undisputed that FedEx knew FMLA leave had been requested—and this issue, rather than the anticipated duration of the leave, was the “relevant question.” Ultimately, based on the employer’s knowledge of the request to take the FMLA leave and failure to explain the consequences of not returning the form, the jury’s determination that FedEx interfered with her ongoing FMLA leave was upheld.

This decision highlights the importance of the FMLA’s notice requirements and the obligations of employers triggered when proper notice is provided. It also reinforces that employees need only provide notice of the need for leave rather than the precise duration, and that employers should be exceedingly cautious and diligent before terminating employees for failing to return medical certification forms. To best protect your company, issues surrounding FMLA notice should be reduced to writing, reviewed frequently, and applied in a consistent and fair manner. Do not hesitate to contact a member of our Employment Practices Group if you have questions about the decision, would like a copy of it, have a question about federal labor law, or have a general employment law question.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel. 

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