Human Resources News & Insights

FMLA ruling: Employees have obligations, too

Here’s a welcome reminder for companies: Though employers carry a lot of the load in the FMLA leave approval process, employees play a major role, too. And if staffers fail to do what’s required of them, it’s perfectly legal to deny them leave. 

Ronita Brookins, who worked for Staples Contract and Commercial, Inc., was diagnosed with breast cancer. After beating the cancer twice and taking medical leave each time, the cancer returned a third time.

Brookins missed four days of work without approval to see several doctors. Brookins then was called into a meeting with her supervisor and an HR manager about those missed days of work, which were being documented as unexcused absences. Brookins was informed that she’d be fired if she had any more unexcused absences.

Only then did Brookins tell her employer her breast cancer had returned and she’d likely need more medical leave. The HR manager told Brookins that she should take FMLA leave and would have 15 days to submit medical certification. Brookins said that might be hard because she was between doctors.

She missed turning in her certification on time. The company gave her an extension. She missed the deadline again. They gave her a third extension.

It turned out that Brookins was having a difficult time obtaining documentation. But she never told her company that.

When she was more than a month overdue on turning in her paperwork, the company fired her, ruling her absences as unexcused leave.

She barely tried

So Brookins sued, claiming FMLA interference and retaliation.

Not so fast, said the court.

Brookins failed to follow the law and turn in her FMLA certification within 15 days. Her only recourse at that point would have been to show her firm that she was making a diligent, good faith effort to get the certification completed.

But in reality, the court said, Brookins wasn’t making a diligent, good faith effort. She called her two physicians and asked them to complete the certification. Both refused — and then Brookins did nothing. The court had no choice but to side with the firm because Brookins hadn’t done her due diligence to get the certification to the company.

Jeff Nowak‘s excellent blog post on the case on the FMLA Insights blog offers five things Brookins could done to show she was engaging in a diligent, good faith effort:

  • “When Brookins initially was rebuffed by these two physicians, she could have contacted them again, explaining the importance of completing the certification.
  • She could have asked any one of three other additional specialists she visited with during her treatment to complete the form.
  • She could have mailed the form to any of these doctors.
  • She could have delivered the form in person to any of these doctors.
  • Perhaps most significant to the court: She should have contacted her employer to explain her difficulties in obtaining timely certification and requested an extension before the 15-day deadline expired. (In her case, she didn’t seek an extension until after the deadline passed.)”

The case is Brookins v. Staples Contract & Commercial, Inc.

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