Federal District Court Highlights the Risk of Inaccurate and Inconsistent Communications Regarding Leaves of Absence
In Knaup v. Molina Healthcare of Ohio, Inc., (No. 2:19-cv-166) the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio addressed whether an employee had received an extension of time for submitting medical certification in support of her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) request and whether the employer had discharged her for both failing to provide such documentation and in retaliation for the initial leave request. On March 3, 2021, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the FMLA interference claim but granted summary judgment on the retaliation claim, finding the employee did not present evidence of the employer’s retaliatory intent, therefore failing to establish a causal connection between her FMLA leave request and her employment termination.
Abby Knaup worked for Molina Healthcare of Ohio, Inc. as a care review processor. On October 10, 2018, Knaup applied for FMLA leave for her anxiety and depression and under Molina’s short-term disability policy. Molina used a third-party administrator, Hartford, to administer employees’ leave applications.
On October 11, 2018, Hartford promptly responded via a single letter to Knaup’s applications, letting her know that she was “eligible” for FMLA leave and that her short-term disability eligibility still was “pending determination.” The letter further advised Knaup “to keep in touch with Molina and Hartford about her leave” and informed her, “once we obtain the necessary information from your health care provider to support your leave request, due by 10/26/2018, we will make a determination to approve or deny your request for Short Term Disability (STD) benefits.” Hartford’s letter did not mention that it needed any documentation for Knaup’s FMLA application.
On October 28, 2018, when Knaup did not provide documentation by the required date, Hartford sent another letter stating that because Hartford had “not received her Treating Provider’s information … [they] are unable to completely evaluate [Knaup’s] claim for benefits.” Hartford informed her that she “could submit the information within 60 days for evaluation, or she could appeal the denial.” Hartford sent a second letter to Knaup on the same day that denied her FMLA and short-term disability applications because “paperwork had not been returned.” Knaup alleges, and Hartford did not dispute, that a Hartford customer service representative already had given her until November 8, 2018, (via phone conversation) to submit the paperwork.
Knaup subsequently submitted a medical certificate to Hartford from her health care provider on November 8, 2018. Hartford denied the claim for short-term disability benefits in a letter received on November 21, 2018, which made no mention of Knaup’s FMLA leave request. The same day, Knaup received another letter, this time from Molina, indicating “it had not received documents substantiating her absence” from work. Three weeks later, Molina terminated Knaup’s employment, determining she had voluntarily resigned her position for failing to submit medical certification. Knaup sued Molina, claiming it violated the FMLA by interfering with her entitlement to take FMLA leave and also engaged in retaliatory termination.
The Court’s Analysis
Molina argued Knaup failed to show she was entitled to FMLA because she had failed to submit timely medical certification. However, in denying summary judgment on the interference claim, the court found a material dispute existed as to whether the FMLA certification was due on October 26, 2018, as the initial letter made no specific mention of requiring medical documentation for her FMLA request. The court also noted a dispute of fact existed as to whether Hartford provided Knaup with an extension to November 8, 2018, to submit the FMLA medical certification form, which is when Knaup’s medical provider submitted the certification to Molina via Hartford. Notably, the court opined that Hartford’s and Molina’s various letters to Knaup were “anything but clear” and “a reasonable trier of fact could conclude the letters … were inaccurate, inconsistent and at times incorrect.” Thus, because the law required that the court view the facts in the light most favorable to Knaup, it denied Molina’s summary judgment motion.
This decision provides helpful guidance both to employers who use third parties to administer leave and those who do not. If using a third party administrator, employers may want to make sure they are providing consistent and accurate messaging to employees. Although under the law, an employer may have a policy that requires FMLA and short-term disability leaves to run concurrently with one another, eligibility and other requirements of each type of leave are different. As such, to avoid any confusion, employers may consider administering each type of leave separately, including sending separate communications to employees relating to the specific type of leave being addressed. To further reduce risk, employers may want each communication to identify the specific eligibility steps that employees must take and the deadlines by which employees must complete each step.