Appeals Court Reverses Summary Judgment for Defense in Case of Company That Denied FMLA Leave for Depression

On August 18, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisonsin to grant summary judgment to the defendant in Hansen v. Fincantieri Marine Group LLC. The plaintiff in this case alleged that his employer, Fincantieri Marine Group (“FMG”) interfered with his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and then terminated him in retaliation for exercising the same rights.

The key question for the Appeals Court in this case was whether the employer had the right to make Mr. Hansen’s FMLA leave conditional on his providing an expert opinion supporting his claim that his condition–depression–was serious and rendered him unable to perform his job. The Wisconsin District Court had accepted the Defendant’s argument that they were legally permitted to deny Mr. Hansen’s request for leave because i) the notification they received from Mr. Hansen’s doctor estimated that he would need intermittent leave when his depression flared up, about four times every six months for 2-5 days each time, but he took leave exceeding that predicted amount of time; and iii) the evidence Mr. Hansen provided to the company substantiating his FMLA claims did not include an expert medical opinion. The Appeals Court rejected this conclusion and remanded the case back to District Court.

FMG has an attendance policy, under which employees accumulate points for missed work time. An employee gets one point for each time they miss more than four hours of a scheduled work day, and is subject to termination if they have ten points. Plaintiff Hansen had nine points, then requested FMLA leave for two additional episodes of depression. If he had been granted FMLA leave, these two absences would not have counted toward his attendance points. However, FMG denied his requests, because he had “exceeded his frequency” as outlined in his doctor’s notice to the company and his certification for additional FMLA leave was incomplete or insufficient. He received additional points and was terminated.

The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees an employee the opportunity to cure any claimed deficiency in the cerficiation of a request for leave before the employer may deny the request. Hansen was not given this opportunity. FMG rejected the medical certification he provided because it was not the testimony of a medical expert commenting on Mr. Hansen’s incapacity to do his job. But FMG never informed Mr. Hansen that they had found his certification incomplete, thus denying him his right to attempt to “cure the deficiency.”

The Court also explained no grounds had been provided for the company’s claim that Hansen had “exceeded his leave,” since his doctor’s statement about his condition was only an estimate of how much leave he was likely to need: “…none of the other authorities cited by FMG establish that the estimated frequency and duration of intermittent leave act as absolute limits on the employee’s entitlement to leave.” The company was legally obligated to find out whether certification could be provided for Hansen’s additional absences, and to give him an opportunity to correct any problems with this certification, before they could terminated him.

If you are an employee and you believe your rights under the FMLA have been violated, please call The Harman Firm, LLP.