• No FMLA Interference Where Medical Certifications Untimely
  • June 4, 2008 | Author: Daniel J. McCoy
  • Law Firm: Fenwick & West LLP - Mountain View Office
  • An employer did not interfere with a married couple's rights to federal Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave where each spouse was terminated after failing to provide timely medical certification for their absences. In Townsend-Taylor v. Ameritech Services, Inc., the plaintiffs sued Ameritech following their terminations for excessive absenteeism and the denial of retroactive applications for family leave. Ameritech's FMLA policy required the employee to submit a medical certification to the company within 15 days by fax or email, the minimum time employers must afford employees under FMLA; in practice, the company allowed 20 days before the certification was deemed untimely. When an employee missed that deadline, the company allowed an employee an additional 15 days to submit proof of extenuating circumstances to justify the untimely filing, consistent with the FMLA's recognition that the time limitations imposed are not always practicable and that an employer should notify and allow an employee a reasonable opportunity to cure insufficient medical certifications.

    Although Ameritech provided each spouse a medical certification form, the couple failed to comply with either deadline. The husband purportedly missed several days to care for their sick child but Ameritech did not receive his certification. Further, neither the doctor's letter indicating he had completed and submitted the forms to the employer and/or the employee three times nor the employee's explanation that he had used the wrong form explained or justified the failure to provide appropriate certification. The wife allegedly missed three days for back problems. She procrastinated on submitting the form to her doctor, and Ameritech received the certification a day late. Neither the doctor's explanation that her reduced schedule sometimes caused delays nor the employee's claim that she delivered the form on her first day off justified the late submission or the employee's failure to use diligent efforts to comply with the deadline.

    Recognizing that both spouses were "problem employees," the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal (covering Illinois and other midwestern states) observed "Ameritech was not required to exhibit more patience than the law and its own rules required" and dismissed the lawsuit.

    As this decision demonstrates, an employer may place – and enforce – lawful, reasonable time limits on an employee's submission of FMLA medical certifications. Absent timely submission of that certification – or evidence that extenuating circumstances prevented compliance – an employer may treat the time as an unapproved absence and, in appropriate circumstances, impose discipline up to and including termination.