Failure to Notify Employee that Proper Medical Release Needed to Return to Work Constituted FMLA Interference

January 03, 2017

A federal appeals court has held that a hospital interfered with a nurse’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights by failing to notify him that he wouldn’t be restored to his position without a doctor’s return-to-work release, and by failing to pay back wages due in a timely manner.

The Employee, a hospital nurse who was hired in December 2011, took a two-week medical leave in early August 2012 that was not covered by the FMLA since he hadn’t been employed long enough. He took another medical beginning in late November. While on leave, he became entitled to FMLA leave in December 2012, but the Employer mistakenly believed he still didn’t qualify. The Employee announced he was able to return to work on January 18, 2013, but was not restored to his position at that time. The Employee provided a return-to-work release from his doctor on February 23, 2013, but was not reinstated until March 12, 2013. The Employer subsequently sent the Employee a check it claimed covered his back wages.

Though the Employee was previously counseled for performance issues, new allegations of deficiencies quickly followed his return. After receiving three verbal reprimands in April 2013, the Employee sent an email indicating he might file a lawsuit claiming FMLA interference and retaliation. The Employee received several more reprimands followed by a written warning regarding four patient-safety issues in September 2013. The Employee was suspended and terminated a month later.

The Employee claimed that the Employerl interfered with his FMLA rights by failing to restore him after he provided notice in January 2013 that he was prepared to return. Though the Employer previously indicated that the Employee would need to "provide the proper return to work documentation," including a doctor’s release, the Employer also had allowed the Employee to return to work after his medical leave in August 2012 without providing such a release, indicating the lack of a uniform policy. Moreover, the Employer discouraged the Employee from providing a return-to-work release in January 2013 until he had secured a new job, even though he reported that he was ready to return to work.

More significantly, because the Employer undisputedly failed to advise the Employee that his failure to provide a release would result in denial of job restoration, the court held that the Employer interfered with his FMLA rights. It was irrelevant whether this failure was due to the Employer's mistaken belief that the Employee's leave was not covered by the FMLA since it had a duty to make a correct FMLA-eligibility determination and to notify him of its requirements and consequences for failing to meet them.

Because the Employee submitted a return-to-work release on February 27, 2013, but was not restored to his job until March 18, 2013 the court also held that the Employee was harmed by the 90-day delay in receiving the back wages.