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You don’t need a second opinion to reject FMLA certification

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources,Meeting Management,Office Management

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan, recently handed employers some ammunition to fight FMLA claims.

In its decision in Novak v. MetroHealth Medical Center, the court upheld the employer’s decision to reject medical certification forms that did not support an FMLA leave, and reaffirmed its holding that an employer is not obligated to get a second opinion when it rejects an employee’s certification paperwork.

Back pain, a baby, missed work

Donna Novak missed a lot of work in 2004. That was a problem because the MetroHealth Medical Center has a no-fault policy that calls for termination if an employee is absent more than a set number of hours in any 12-month period.

On March 22, Novak called in absent, saying her daughter was having a baby. On March 24 and 25 she stated that she could not work because of “back pain.” She wrote an e-mail on the 27th stating she needed to be out from Monday, March 29, through Thursday, April 1, in part because of back problems.

Realizing that her employment would be in jeopardy under the medical center’s attendance policy, Novak sought FMLA leave to cover the absences—after the fact.

She first submitted forms signed by a physician who had not actually treated her for back problems. MetroHealth told Novak she should have her treating physician fill out the medical certification form. A second “treating” physician sent in paperwork, but the certification omitted critical information—a description of the medical facts and the duration of Novak’s condition. Novak attempted to correct the forms by having them completed by the medical clinic office support staff—not the physician.

The medical center was suspicious of Novak’s claims and asked her to execute a release authorizing it to speak with the “treating” physician. Novak agreed. The physician reported that he had not in fact treated Novak at the time in question. After reviewing all the paperwork, the employer concluded that Novak had provided contradictory information and that the absences did not qualify as FMLA. MetroHealth therefore terminated Novak because she had exceeded the number of hours absent allowed under the attendance policy.

The decision

Reviewing Novak’s FMLA claim, a lower court concluded that the “suspicious and contradictory nature” of Novak’s certification forms belied her claim that she suffered from a serious health condition.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. It went on to explain why: One certification form did not contain the date on which the serious health condition began, the probable duration or the appropriate medical facts. Thus, it was not sufficient. A second form was inadequate because a health care provider did not complete it. A third form was not adequate because the health care provider signing it admitted having no personal knowledge of Novak’s condition.

The court pointed out that the medical center had given Novak ample opportunity to correct her certification forms. That is a very significant consideration in any case where FMLA leave is denied.

Advice: Employers should double-check the dates on employees’ FMLA medical certifications, challenge the information provided in them and follow up with the doctors. The Novak decision demonstrates that it’s important for employers to push back if they doubt the validity or legitimacy of FMLA medical certifications.

Employers should get the message out that they will not accept FMLA certification forms that do not support the medical conditions employees claim.

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