On August 5, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed an entry of summary judgment in the case of Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc. The Third Circuit’s decision was important as it highlights the important role the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) notices play in the FMLA certification process.
Lisa Lupyan was working as an Applied Science Management instructor in December 2007 when she became unable to work as a result of depression. Ms. Lupyan applied for a personal leave and the Human Resources department determined that Ms. Lupyan was eligible for FMLA leave based upon her application which included a Certification of Health Provider form commonly used in conjunction with possible FMLA-qualifying leaves. The parties agreed that Ms. Lupyan’s FMLA rights were never discussed, however, her employer claimed it sent a letter to Ms. Lupyan advising her that her leave was FMLA-qualifying and explaining her rights under the FMLA. Ms. Lupyan claimed she never received that letter.
When Ms. Lupyan attempted to return to her job in March 2008, she was denied the ability to do so because her release to return to work was subject to work restrictions. Employers have the right to deny returns to work under such circumstances so long as the employee is advised in advance of such a policy, such as in an FMLA rights notice like the one purportedly mailed to Ms. Lupyan that she claimed she never received. Ms. Lupyan was eventually released to return to work without restrictions in April 2008 at which time her employer notified her that her employment was being terminated, in part, because she did not return within the twelve week timeframe covered by the FMLA. Employers have the right to terminate employees who fail to return to work upon the exhaustion of their FMLA leave, but employers have an obligation to provide employees sufficient information regarding the FMLA so the employee has the ability to understand when their FMLA leave will be exhausted.
The district court properly recognized the obligations placed upon employers with respect notifying employees of their FMLA rights but ultimately dismissed Ms. Lupyan’s case based on the “mailbox rule” which presumes delivery of items placed in the mail. On appeal, the Third Circuit found Ms. Lupyan’s testimony that she did not receive the FMLA letter from Human Resources to be sufficient evidence to overturn the dismissal of her case. In other words, because there was a dispute over the receipt of the letter, dismissal by the court was not proper because a finder of fact (a jury) had to determine whether Ms. Lupyan received the letter or not. If she did, she was properly advised of her FMLA rights and her employer’s actions were lawful. If she did not, she was left in the dark with respect to her FMLA rights and she cannot be prejudiced as a result thereof.
The Third Circuit addressed two other issues in Ms. Lupyan’s case that are worth noting. First, the court ruled that even though Ms. Lupyan ultimately received all of the FMLA leave to which she was entitled (twelve weeks), there was sufficient evidence that Ms. Lupyan might have been able to return to work sooner (and before her FMLA leave entitlement had been exhausted) had she received the required notice with respect to her FMLA rights. This is noteworthy as judges often focus on the issue of whether the employee received the leave to which they were entitled in deciding whether an employee’s FMLA rights may have been violated. Ms. Lupyan’s case shows such a narrow focus may be misguided.
Second, Ms. Lupyan was also allowed to proceed with a retaliation claim. In allowing that claim to proceed, the Third Circuit cited the timing of Ms. Lupyan’s termination which occurred on the heels of her attempting to return to work following her leave and multiple inconsistencies with the non-FMLA reason provided for the termination. That portion of the decision reaffirms the notion that FMLA retaliation may be inferred when a termination occurs in close temporal proximity to a FMLA leave combined with other evidence that causes the stated reason(s) for termination to be called into question.