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Give employees time to clarify medical leave requests

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A Pennsylvania health care institution should have asked an employee to resubmit her vaguely worded medical certification as required by law before terminating her for improperly taking days off, says an appeals court in reinstating a Family Medical Leave Act case filed by the fired worker.

In March 2013, Deborah Hansler, an employee of the Allentown, Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, began experiencing shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, according to Monday’s ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia in Deborah Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network.

Her doctor submitted a medical certification requesting intermittent leave for about a month at a frequency of two times weekly beginning on March 1, 2013, but did not identify the nature or duration of her condition.

Ms. Hansler was unable to work for five days in March because of her condition. Lehigh Valley terminated Ms. Hansler on March 28, 2013, for absenteeism without seeking further information about the medical certificate from either her or her physician.

When she reminded Lehigh Valley she had requested time off, Ms. Hansler was informed for the first time her request had been denied on the basis that her condition “does not qualify as a serious health condition” under the FMLA. She was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure the following month.

Ms. Hansler filed suit against Lehigh Valley, charging it with interfering with her substantive rights to medical leave, and for terminating her in retaliation for seeking leave.

The U.S. District Court in Philadelphia granted Lehigh Valley summary judgment dismissing the case, concluding the request for leave was defective because the medical certification had indicated her condition would last for only one month, but the FMLA requires that a chronic serious health condition persist for an “extended period of time.”

A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit reinstated both charges in a 2-1 ruling. Under U.S. Department of Labor regulations, if an employer determines a medical certificate is either incomplete or insufficient, it may deny the requested leave, but only after the employee has been given seven days to “cure any such deficiency,” said the ruling.

“We conclude that, in failing to afford Hansler a chance to cure any deficiencies in her medical certification, Lehigh Valley violated” the FMLA, said the ruling.

The dissenting opinion stated Ms. Hansler’s medical certification “accurately reflected her condition at the time of her request. This condition did not, however, qualify her for FMLA leave.”

In May, A U.S. appeals court reinstated FMLA claims filed by a former Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. employee in a case in which the employer gave shifting reasons for terminating the worker.