Reminder to Employers: Include GINA Safe Harbor Language in FMLA Certification Forms

Guest Post: by Erin Fitzgerald, Esquire

In a November 17, 2009, blog entry, I advised that although the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 ("GINA") generally prohibits employers from acquiring genetic information from an employee (including family medical history), the Act provides that the prohibition does not apply to the extent such a disclosure is made inadvertently by an employee when submitting a certification requested under the FMLA.

Since that blog entry, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued final regulations on Title II of GINA. Included in the regulations is a safe harbor provision, which addresses situations when an employer is lawfully requesting medical information. Specifically, the regulations provide that if an employer informs the individual requesting leave under the FMLA and the health care provider who is completing the FMLA certification not to provide genetic information, any acquisition of genetic information from the certification will be deemed inadvertent under the Act.

The regulations provide the following suggested language to use in order to be protected by the safe harbor provision:

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits employers and other entities covered by GINA Title II from requesting or requiring genetic information of an individual or family member of the individual, except as specifically allowed by this law. To comply with this law, we are asking that you not provide any genetic information when responding to this request for medical information. `Genetic information' as defined by GINA, includes an individual's family medical history, the results of an individual's or family member's genetic tests, the fact that an individual or an individual's family member sought or received genetic services, and genetic information of a fetus carried by an individual or an individual's family member or an embryo lawfully held by an individual or family member receiving assistive reproductive services.

While GINA includes an exception for employers who request medical information in a FMLA certification and who inadvertently receive such genetic information, it would be prudent to include the safe harbor language as stated in the regulations when sending out any certifications under the FMLA. We recommend that all FMLA certification forms be revised to include the safe harbor language.

Requesting Doctors' Notes for Intermittent Leave Absences Within Three Days Can Get Employers Into Hot Water

Employers continue to be frustrated with the limited options they have to curb apparent abuses of intermittent FMLA leave.  One of the most common scenarios involves an employee who is certified as eligible for intermittent leave, has repeated absences, and takes the position without documentation that the absences qualify as intermittent FMLA leave.  To counteract this fact pattern, some employers require employees to submit doctors' notes confirming that the absences in question are covered by the FMLA. 

A recent opinion from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio calls into question the practice of requesting doctors' notes within a short timeframe to establish that absences are covered by the FMLA.  In Smith v. CallTech Communications, LLC, No. 2:07-cv-144, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48518 (June 10, 2009), the plaintiff presented a certification from her health care provider and was approved for intermittent FMLA leave due to her chronic major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder.  The defendant employer used a point system that governed not only employee attendance, but other infractions and performance-related issues.  Under the point system, an employee received a written notification once she accrued four points.  Once she accumulated five points, she received a written warning and, at six points, she was subject to termination.  The plaintiff received several notifications that she had reached the six-point level due to her absences.  Under the system, the points could be removed for FMLA-related absences if the plaintiff brought in a doctor's excuse, even if the note excused several absences retroactively. 

After accumulating 6.75 points, the plaintiff was advised on May 28, 2006 that she would be terminated unless by May 31, 2006 she reduced her point level below six by providing a doctor's verification that at least some of her absences were the result of her medical condition.  The plaintiff told her supervisor that she would not be able to obtain the necessary documentation within three days.  The plaintiff stopped reporting to work after May 31, 2006, and was terminated. 

The plaintiff sued, in part, under the FMLA, alleging that the defendant interfered with her FMLA rights.  The court denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment as to her FMLA claim.  The court held that, while the defendant "clearly was entitled to some form of medical documentation for [the plaintiff's] absence even through she had been approved for FMLA leave . . . and had verbally informed her supervisor that her absences were related to her condition," the FMLA requires only that an employee provide medical documentation in a timely manner.  While the court did not require that the plaintiff be afforded 15 days to provide the doctors' notes (as would be required for a certification from a health care provider), it held that she needed to be provided with a reasonable amount of time under the exigencies of the situation to obtain any notes from her doctor.  The court further held that allowing the plaintiff only three days to obtain medical documentation for her absences was unreasonable as a matter of law. 

While this case appears to sanction the practice of requiring doctor's notes to substantiate the need for intermittent FMLA leave when those notes are requested pursuant to company policy, it also teaches that employers need to provide employees with a reasonable time period in which to comply with the request.  Given the court's reliance on the 15-day certification period as a patently reasonable timeframe, prudent employers would permit employees to submit doctors' notes within 15 days to avoid termination pursuant to company attendance policy. 

 

 

Focus on Revised FMLA Regulations: Can An Employer Request A Second Or Third Opinion Before the Opportunity To Cure?

Happy New Year!  We are closing in on the January 16, 2009 effective date of the Final Regulations, so I hope to cover a number of topics in the next few weeks. 
 
A client recently asked whether an employer must give an employee the opportunity to cure any deficiences in a medical certification pursuant to 29 C.F.R. Section 825.305(c) before the employer may seek a second or third opinion concerning the certification.  The Final Regulations do not address this issue.  According to the Final Regulations, an employee is required to provide a "complete and sufficient" certification to the employer if the employer's request otherwise complies with the applicable Final Regulations.  The employer shall advise an employee whenever the empoyer finds the certification incomplete or insufficient, and shall state in writing what additional information is needed to make the certification complete or sufficient.  A certification is considered incomplete if the employer receives a certification, but one or more of the applicable entries have not been completed.  A certification is considered insufficient if the employer receives a complete certification, but the information provided is vague, ambiguous or non-responsive.  The employer must provide the employee with seven calendar days (unless "not practicable under the particular circumstances despite the employee's good faith efforts") to cure any such deficiency.  See 29 C.F.R. Section 825.305(c). 
 
An employer who has reason to doubt the validity of a medical certification may require the employee to obtain a second opinion at the employer's expense.  Pending receipt of the second medical opinion, the employee is provisionally entitled to the benefits of the FMLA, including maintenance of group health benefits.  See 29 C.F.R. Section 825.307(b).  If the opinions of the employee's and the employer's designated health care providers differ, the employer may require the employee to obtain certification from a health care provider at the employer's expense.  The third opinion is final and binding.  See 29 C.F.R. Section 825.307(c).  Employers should refer to 29 C.F.R. Sections 825.307(b) and (c) concerning which health care providers may furnish a second or third opinion and, in the case of third opinions, the process for selecting the health care provider. 
 
Sections 825.305 and 825.307 of the Final Regulations are silent as to whether an employer must provide the employee with the 7-day opportunity to cure an insufficient or imcomplete certification before seeking a second opinion because the employer has reason to doubt the validity of the medical certification.  In many, if not most, cases, if an employer has reason to doubt the validity of the medical certification, the concern likely will arise from the fact that the initial medical certification is either incomplete or insufficient.  Given this, and given that an employer must provide the employee with an opportunity to cure if the certification is incomplete or insufficient, the best practice is to provide the opportunity to cure and then seek a second opinion if the employer still has concerns about the validity of the medical certification.  In addition, because the employer must pay for the second and third opinions, it would behoove the employer to attempt to resolve any issues with the certification through the 7-day opportunity to cure prior to expending monies on additional certifications. 
 
I suspect that we will see a Department of Labor opinion letter on this issue at some point. 
 
Please see my November 21, 2008 blog for a link to the full text of the Revised Regulations.