Third Circuit Emphasizes Employer’s Duty to Allow Employee to Cure Deficiencies in FMLA Certification

In Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was presented with what has become a very common Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) issue: What is the proper course of action for an employer to take when it receives a FMLA certification that is vague, ambiguous, non-responsive, or incomplete?

Deborah Hansler became ill in March 2013 while working as a technical partner with Lehigh Valley Hospital Network. Ms. Hansler submitted a medical certification requesting two days per week of leave for approximately one month, but the certification did not address the nature or duration of her underlying medical condition. After Ms. Hansler took several days off as a result of her illness, Lehigh Valley Hospital Network terminated her employment due to excessive absenteeism.

Ms. Hansler filed suit, challenging her termination under the FMLA. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network defended the lawsuit by arguing that Ms. Hansler’s medical certification was a “negative certification,” thereby rendering her FMLA request to be “invalid.” The District Court agreed with Lehigh Valley Hospital Network and dismissed Ms. Hansler’s case.

On appeal, Ms. Hansler disputed the District Court’s conclusion that her medical certification was a “negative certification,” claiming instead it was insufficient and, as a result, she should have been afforded an opportunity to cure the deficiencies in the document. The Third Circuit agreed. “[B]ecause a ‘sufficient certification’ for intermittent leave under 29 U.S.C. § 2613(b) must address both ‘the expected duration of the intermittent leave’ and the ‘probable duration of the condition,’ and because the certification here failed to specify whether the ‘probable duration of one month’ referred to the duration of the leave request, the duration of the medical condition, or both, the certification was not a ‘negative certification,’ but was instead ‘vague, ambiguous, or non-responsive,’ meeting the definition of ‘insufficient.’ 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c).”

“In short, we hold today simply that when a certification submitted by an employee is ‘vague, ambiguous, or non-responsive’ (or ‘incomplete,’ for that matter) as to any of the categories of information required under 29 U.S.C. § 2613(b), the employer ‘shall advise [the] employee what additional information is necessary to make the certification complete and sufficient’ and ‘must provide the employee with seven calendar days to cure any such deficiency.’ 29 C.F.R. § 825.305(c). The plain and mandatory language of the statute and regulations requires no less.” Having litigated this very issue several times, I can say without hesitation that this decision was the correct decision and I hope other judges follow the Third Circuit’s lead on this issue.