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Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 22, 2015

DEBORAH HANSLER, Appellant
v.
LEHIGH VALLEY HOSPITAL NETWORK

Argued: January 13, 2015.

Page 500

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 501

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 5-13-cv-03924). District Judge: Honorable James Knoll Gardner.

Samuel A. Dion, Esq. [ARGUED], Dion & Goldberger, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellant.

Darren M. Creasy, Esq., Karyn Dobroskey Rienzi, Esq., A. James Johnston, Esq., Andrea M. Kirshenbaum, Esq. [ARGUED], Post & Schnell, Philadelphia, PA; Glenn Guanowsky, Esq., Lehigh Valley Hospital, Department of Legal Services, Allentown, PA, for Appellee.

Before: AMBRO, FUENTES, and ROTH, Circuit Judges. ROTH, Circuit Judge, dissenting.

OPINION

Page 502

FUENTES, Circuit Judge.

Deborah Hansler requested intermittent leave from her former employer, Lehigh Valley Health Network (" Lehigh Valley" ), under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (" FMLA" or the " Act" ), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. [1] Specifically, Hansler submitted a medical certification requesting leave for two days a week for approximately one month. As alleged in the complaint, the medical certification refers to the length of her requested leave but not the nature or duration of her condition. A few weeks later, after she took several days off work, Lehigh Valley terminated Hansler's employment without seeking any clarification about her medical certification, as required by law. Lehigh Valley cited excessive absences and informed her that the request for leave had been denied. Hansler sued Lehigh Valley for violations of the Medical Leave Act, and the District Court dismissed the complaint on the basis that the medical certification supporting Hansler's request for leave was " invalid." We conclude that, in failing to afford Hansler a chance to cure any deficiencies in her medical certification, Lehigh Valley violated the Medical Leave Act. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I.

Hansler was hired by Lehigh Valley in 2011 to work as a technical partner. In early March 2013, Hansler began experiencing shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. At the time, the cause of these symptoms was unknown. On March 13, Hansler's physician completed a medical certification form " requesting intermittent leave at a frequency of 2 times weekly starting on March 1, 2013 and lasting for a probable duration of one month-- or until about April 1, 2013." App. 44. Hansler submitted the certification to Lehigh Valley as part of a formal request for leave under the Medical Leave Act. As a result of her condition, Hansler was unable to work on March 13, 14, 23, 24, and 25.

Without seeking further information about the medical certification from either Hansler or her physician, Lehigh Valley terminated Hansler at the end of her shift on March 28. The basis for Hansler's termination was absenteeism, including the five days she took off in March. Hansler reminded Lehigh Valley that she had requested time off under the Medical Leave Act, but Lehigh Valley informed her, for the first time, that her request had been denied. Following the last of her absences, Hansler learned of a letter dated March 26 explaining that her request for " leave of absence (FMLA) for the period of 3/1/13-3/11/13" was denied because her " condition presently does not qualify as a serious health condition under the criteria set forth by the [Medical Leave Act]." App. 45. In early April 2013, after her dismissal, Hansler received a diagnosis of diabetes and high blood pressure. She alleges that these previously undiagnosed and untreated conditions are what caused her March absences.

Hansler sued Lehigh Valley under the Medical Leave Act for interfering with her substantive rights to medical leave and for terminating her in retaliation for seeking

Page 503

leave. In her complaint, Hansler alleges she has chronic serious health conditions and argues that Lehigh Valley improperly denied her request for leave without providing her an opportunity to cure her medical certification. The District Court granted Lehigh Valley's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. It concluded that Hansler's request for leave was defective because her medical certification indicated that her condition would last only one month, but the Medical Leave Act requires that a chronic serious health condition persist for an " extended period of time." The District Court held that because the certification showed that Hansler was not entitled to leave, Lehigh Valley was not required to afford Hansler a cure period and was permitted to terminate Hansler for her subsequent absences. That Hansler was later diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure was of no consequence. According to the Court, " [a]lthough the timing of events for plaintiff was, without question unfortunate, the fact remains that her diagnosis with diabetes and high blood pressure did not occur until after her leave request was denied and she was fired by defendant." Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, No. 13-cv-03924, 2014 WL 1281132, at *10 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 28, 2014). Hansler filed this appeal.[2]

II.

Congress passed the Medical Leave Act " to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families" and " to entitle employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons." 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b). The Medical Leave Act carries out these objectives by providing that eligible employees are entitled to 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period if the employee has a " serious health condition" that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of her position. Id. § 2612(a)(1)(D). After a worker returns from leave, the worker is entitled to be reinstated to her previous position or an equivalent one. Id. § 2614(a)(1).

A " serious health condition" is one that involves inpatient care in a hospital or " continuing treatment by a health care provider." Id. § 2611(11). In its implementing regulations, the Department of Labor defines " [c]ontinuing treatment by a health care provider" to include " chronic serious health condition[s]" that (i) " [r]equire[] periodic visits (defined as at least twice a year) for treatment by a health care provider," (ii) " [c]ontinue[] over an extended period of time," and (iii) " [m]ay cause episodic rather than a continuing period of incapacity (e.g., asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, etc.)." 29 C.F.R. § 825.102.

Prior to taking leave, an employee must give her employer notice of the request for leave, " stat[ing] a qualifying reason for the needed leave." Id. § 825.301(b). An employer may require its employees to support their requests for leave with a certification issued by a health care provider. 29 U.S.C. § 2613(a). A " sufficient" medical certification must state (1) the date on which the serious health condition ...


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