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Worker testimony, expert opinion justify FMLA leave: Court


PHILADELPHIA—A worker’s testimony plus an expert medical opinion can qualify an employee for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The ruling in Rachael Schaar vs. Lehigh Valley Health Services Inc. overturned a lower court finding that the employee failed to establish through medical evidence that she was incapacitated for more than three days and suffered a serious health condition as required for FMLA leave.

The March 11 ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals added to the split among federal appeals courts over whether lay testimony can establish that an employee suffers a serious health condition.

Incapacitation for more than three days can help establish a serious health condition for FMLA purposes, the court ruled. At issue in the case was whether a doctor’s note establishing incapacitation for two days plus Ms. Schaar’s testimony that she remained ill two additional days in September 2005 satisfied FMLA leave requirements from her job as a medical receptionist.

In addition to prescribing medication, a doctor wrote a note advising her supervisor that her illness prevented her from working for two days. But she did not return to work until several days after that and was terminated. She then sued, alleging interference and discrimination in violation of the FMLA.

A trial court granted Lehigh Valley summary judgment, holding that Ms. Schaar failed to present medical evidence that she was incapacitated for more than three days. The lower court said expert medical testimony is necessary to establish incapacity.

However, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia disagreed. It said it could not find a regulation that excluded all lay testimony regarding the length of an employee’s incapacitation and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Federal appeals courts have diverged on the issue, ruling that evidence of incapacitation must come exclusively from a medical professional, that lay testimony can supplement a medical professional’s opinion, or that lay testimony by sufficient by itself.