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Appellate Court finds post-operative treatments fall under Family Medical Leave Act

Evaluating medical conditions for purposes of Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims can be challenging for employers especially as new court decisions continually reinterpret employer obligations. FMLA is a federal statute, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees. It requires an employer to provide “qualified employees” with up to 12 weeks of leave in a year for family or personal medical circumstances. In the case of an employee with personal medical issues, the employee must be suffering from a “serious health condition.” However, a recent appellate court decision highlights the difficulties employers have in making those determinations.

A serious health condition is defined as an illness or injury or condition which involves “continuing treatment by a health care provider.” Regulations enacted by the Department of Labor identify various categories of covered health conditions. One of those categories involves “conditions requiring multiple treatments.” In the recent decision of Pollard v. New York Methodist Hospital, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit clarified the scope of this category.

The case concerned a hospital worker whose employer denied FMLA leave and fired her after she had a procedure to remove a growth on her foot. Her condition required a surgical procedure as well as several follow-up visits to change the dressing and examine the healing, to remove sutures, and ultimately to clear her to return to work. Her employer denied FMLA leave asserting that the employee’s treatment did not require “multiple treatments;” but instead involved only one – the surgical removal of the growth. The District Court agreed with the employer, but the Second Circuit reversed. It determined that such a narrow interpretation of “multiple treatments” was inconsistent with the purpose of the FMLA and its regulations and that the post-operative treatment and appointments constituted multiple treatments for purposes of FMLA protection.

For employers, the Second Circuit’s decision illustrates the importance of taking certain steps in evaluating FMLA requests. These include:

  • Take care to properly evaluate a potential claim. As discussed in a previous post, employers are required to give full consideration to requests for FMLA. That includes asking for additional information if there is any reasonable argument for entitlement.
  • Stay abreast of new court decisions that may change or clarify employer obligations.
  • Always keep careful records of what information was requested and provided in case a denial of leave is ever challenged.
  • Consult with experienced counsel. Employers should contact a qualified attorney whenever they are concerned about whether a particular claim is covered or how to handle an FMLA request.

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