The federal regulations that support the Family and Medical Leave Act require that an employee submit to his or her employer certain medical facts within the knowledge of the employee’s health care provider, including information related to the incapacitation, examination, or treatment that may be required by a health care provider. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a federal employer had the discretion to convert an employee’s conditionally granted FMLA leave to an “absent without leave (“AWOL”) status after the employee refused to provide more than minimal information about the reasons for her requested leave. Lewis v. U.S.A. and Michael B. Donley, Sect. of the Air Force, 9th Cir., N0. 10-35624, May 26, 2011.
Janet Lewis was employed by the U.S. Air Force (“USAF”) as the director of a child development center at Elmendorf Air Force Base. In 2006, Lewis applied for FMLA leave. In response to the USAF’s request for medical certification to support that request, Lewis provided only basic information that she had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that she needed best rest, therapy, prescription medications, and 120 days off work. When Lewis’ supervisor informed her that the information was insufficient to allow the USAF to understand why Lewis was unable to perform her duties and whether additional treatment would be necessary for her condition, Lewis refused to submit further documentation. Based upon that refusal, the USAF converted Lewis to an AWOL status, and terminated her employment. Lewis ultimately brought an action in federal court which included an “unlawful removal” claim on which summary judgment was granted by the district court and in favor of the USAF. Lewis appealed that dismissal to the Ninth Circuit, which upheld the decision.
Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a 12-month period for specific situations, including a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the employee’s position.” An employer has the right to request medical certification that provides sufficient information to allow that employer to understand the incapacitation of the individual seeking leave, as well as what treatment may be required for the impairment. In this case, Lewis’ medical certification was viewed as insufficient by the USAF, which argued that the documents “fail[ed] to support the conclusion that that [Lewis] is suffering from a serious health condition,” and that they contained no explanation as to why Lewis was unable to perform her work duties.
In response, Lewis argued that disputes related to the adequacy of an individual’s medical certification should be resolved by the employer’s request for a second or even third medical opinion – a right to which an employer is entitled under the FMLA. However, the Ninth Circuit pointed out that the need for such follow-up opinions is triggered only when an employer “has reason to doubt the validity” of the certification, and does not apply when the issue is the “sufficiency” of the proffered certification. Because Lewis failed to submit the minimal mandated medical certification, she cannot prove that the USAF violated her rights when it requested additional information, or when it classified her status as AWOL.
It should be noted that while Lewis was a federal employee, the situation that forms the basis of this case and the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is an issue dealt with by both federal and non-governmental employers alike. While much attention and many court opinions have been focused on employees’ rights under the FMLA, it is important to understand the rights established by that Act that inure to the benefit of employers, as well. This decision underscores the fact that courts realize that employers are entitled to information sufficient to fully understand the reasons for an individual’s leave, and the parameters of the treatment necessary to allow that employee to return to work.