FMLA failure to communicate ends up in court
Key to remember: Employers risk an FMLA claim if they fail to provide clear information to employees and subsequently take a negative employment action. Any communication from a third-party leave administrator should also be clear.
Applies to: All public employers and private employers with 50 or more employees.
Impact to customers: This case illustrates the risks of poor communication when it comes to administering FMLA leave.
Case in point
Due to his anxiety, Adam requested FMLA leave and short-term disability. This was on October 10. A series of communications from the company and the third party it used to administer employee leave, ensued. The next day, October 11, the third party replied to Adam, informing him he was eligible for FMLA leave, but his eligibility for short-term disability was pending.
The letter also indicated that “once we obtain the necessary information from your health care provider to support your leave request, due by 10/26…, we will make a determination to approve or deny your request for Short Term Disability (STD) benefits.” It did not say that Adam’s FMLA leave request required this documentation, nor did it otherwise say that Adam needed to take any steps for his FMLA leave.
An October 28 letter was also unclear. It indicated that the requested doctor’s contact information was not received, so the claim could not be evaluated, and the file was closed. It was ambiguous whether a certification was sought or merely the doctor’s contact information.
Adam called the third-party administrator and said that he could not get to the doctor until November 8 due to the doctor’s schedule. He was told he would be allowed to submit the paperwork when he saw his doctor. On November 21, however, Adam received letters denying short-term disability benefits and FMLA leave, the latter due to not receiving documents supporting the leave. Adam contacted the leave administrator to ensure they had received a certification.
Despite this, Adam was terminated for having abandoned his job due to the absences. He sued.
In court, the employer argued that Adam failed to provide an FMLA certification by October 26. Adam pointed out that the deadline had been extended to November 8.
Due to the lack of clarity in the employer’s communications, the court ruled in favor of the employee, allowing the case to proceed. The October 11 letter to Adam noted that he was eligible for FMLA beginning on October 10. Nothing nothing suggested that part of his FMLA request was deficient or outstanding, or that his FMLA request was denied. The only additional information in the letter about additional documentation pertained to his short-term disability leave request. A jury, therefore, could find that the October 26 deadline never applied to the FMLA certification.
The employer tried to argue that there was no documentation regarding the extension to provide the certification, since it was a phone call. This was for a jury to decide. The employer and the third-party administrator were unable to track the first deadline given to Adam, leading to communications with inconsistent due dates. If they could not be clear on the due date, they could not expect Adam to meet it. There was also a question on whether Adam’s certification was received. The company said it did not, while the third party said it did.
Key takeaway: To avoid the risk of an FMLA interference claim, ensure that all related communication, regardless of the source, is clear and details what steps an employee needs to take.
Knaup v. Molina Healthcare of Ohio, Inc., Southern District of Ohio, No. 2:19-cv-166, March 3, 2021
This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.
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