The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by an employee who was fired after she refused to provide medical documentation substantiating her need for a reduced work schedule. According to the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Illinois, the employer “cannot be deemed to retaliate against an employee by asking her to fulfill her obligations” under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Ridings v. Riverside Medical Center, No. 06-4328, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (August 11, 2008).

Factual Background

Janet Ridings was employed by Riverside Medical Center (RMC) in Illinois when she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder. When her doctor advised her to have her thyroid removed, Ridings applied for and was granted three weeks of FMLA leave. When Ridings returned to work, she found that her medication caused her to feel fatigued by the end of the day. As a result, she did not work past 4:30 p.m. on most days but regularly took work home in the evenings and weekends.

Approximately one year after her surgery, Ridings’ supervisor, Kyle Hansen, told her that she needed to begin working a full eight-hour day. When Ridings did not adjust her schedule, Hansen drafted a “corrective action report” regarding Ridings’ schedule, stating that her attendance was unsatisfactory, that she needed to work eight-hour days, and advising her that if she failed to comply a warning would be placed in her personnel file. Ridings signed the report and provided a note from her doctor stating that she could not work an eight-hour day. One week later, on April 1, 2004, Hansen told Ridings that based on her doctor’s note she must provide RMC with FMLA paperwork, including a leave application and a medical certification form.

On April 21, Hansen provided Ridings with a second report stating that she had failed to adhere to policy in that she did not complete the FMLA paperwork in the requested 15-day period. The report also stated that if Ridings failed to submit the paperwork by April 28, she would be placed on a three-day suspension at the conclusion of which if she failed to present the paperwork she could be fired.

Ridings failed to turn in the paperwork and on May 10, Hansen gave her a third report. When she returned from her suspension without the paperwork, Ridings was fired. Ridings sued RMC alleging unlawful interference with her FMLA rights and retaliation. The trial judge dismissed the case and Ridings appealed.

Legal Analysis

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the first report Hansen gave Ridings failed to inform her that she might be entitled to leave and that Hansen was unresponsive to Ridings’ request for clarification on what was needed from her physician. The Seventh Circuit nonetheless ruled that this did not constitute “interference,” especially given that RMC later provided Ridings with the necessary FMLA paperwork and with “ample opportunity” to provide more medical information.

The court rejected Ridings’ argument that the doctor’s note she presented to Hansen was sufficient medical certification. The note did not notify RMC of the expected duration of her leave, the court found. And, even if the note could be considered “certification,” the court held, RMC had given Ridings a reasonable opportunity to provide the additional information.

Ridings next argued that RMC was not authorized to take disciplinary action against her. Taking into account RMC’s medical leave and attendance policies, the court found that Ridings’ absences occurring after RMC requested that she complete the FMLA paperwork (any absence after April 16) were not FMLA-excused. Thus, the court ruled that because company policy listed discharge as a possible penalty for excessive absenteeism, her termination was not unlawful.

Ridings also argued that RMC retaliated against her in violation of the FMLA by terminating her for her protected activity (working a reduced schedule). Ridings claimed that since she was able to work from home, she did not need to be on leave. However, the court found that she never requested permission to work from home. RMC, which gave Ridings the alternative of working eight hours on the premises or completing the FMLA paperwork, the court reasoned, was entitled to ask Ridings to work a full schedule. The court further stated that “an employee cannot simply inform the employer when and from where she would like to work.”

Given that RMC was permitted to ask Ridings to substantiate her need for a reduced schedule, that it gave her several opportunities to provide the requested information, and that it fired her in accordance with the FMLA and its policies, the court dismissed Ridings’ retaliation claim as well.

Practical Impact

According to Tracey Truesdale, an attorney in the firm’s Chicago office: “In this case, an employee’s submission of a doctor’s note did not satisfy the FMLA’s medical certification requirement and the employer was well within its rights to insist upon the proper FMLA certification rather than a vague note. The employee’s refusal to comply with her employer’s repeated requests for FMLA certification verifying her need for leave properly resulted in her illness-related absences being counted against her under the employer’s attendance policy. The Ridings case is a win in the employer’s column and a counter to the FMLA’s notice provisions, which do not require an employee to use the magic word ‘FMLA’ to qualify for leave.”

Note: This article appeared in the September 5, 2008 issue of the Illinois eAuthority.