On March 24, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Williams v. Pinnacle Health Family Care Middletown, No. 20-2737, 2021 WL 1116390 (3d Cir. March 24, 2021) upheld the dismissal on summary judgment of claims for discriminatory termination where the Plaintiff failed to provide a physician’s fitness-for-duty certification following her cancer treatment.

Following: After receiving her diagnosis, Ms. Williams requested and received 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) covered medical leave. After exhausting her FMLA leave, Pinnacle gave her an additional month’s leave as a further accommodation. Following her extended leave, Pinnacle then requested a fitness-for-duty certification from her physician prior to returning her to work.  When Ms. Williams failed to provide the certification after repeated requests that she do so, Pinnacle finally terminated her employment.

In affirming summary judgment for Pinnacle on plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the Third Circuit concluded that:

Pinnacle Health provided Williams with the required amount of FMLA leave and even extended her personal leave. However, Williams failed to provide Pinnacle Health with proof that she was able to return to work, which was required from the outset of her health issues. Therefore, a reasonable factfinder could not conclude that Williams’ termination was a retaliatory action by Pinnacle Health.

As the Pinnacle decision clarifies, an employer may only require a fitness-for-duty certification following approved FMLA leave for the particular health condition that prompted the employee’s request for FMLA in the first place. Additionally, the employer must provide advanced notice of the requirement.

As the U.S. Department of Labor has clarified:

The U.S. Department of Labor provides guidance on this issue:

As a condition of restoring an employee whose FMLA leave was due to the employee’s own serious health condition that made the employee unable to perform the employee’s job, an employer may have a uniformly-applied policy or practice that requires all similarly-situated employees to obtain and present certification from the employee’s health care provider that the employee is able to resume work. The employee has the same obligations to participate and cooperate in the fitness-for-duty certification process as in the initial certification process and is responsible for any associated costs.

DOL further clarifies:

An employer may seek fitness-for-duty certification only with regard to the particular health condition that caused the employee’s need for FMLA leave. The certification from the employee’s health care provider must certify that the employee is able to resume work. The employer must provide notice of the requirement to provide a fitness-for-duty certification with the designation [of FMLA eligibility] notice. https://webapps.dol.gov/elaws/whd/fmla/12a6.aspx

In short, employers may require a doctor’s certification with regard to “the particular health condition that caused the employee’s need for FMLA” certifying that an employee returning from FMLA leave is ready to return to work when the leave ends.

Questions pertaining to this and any other employment related issue in Pennsylvania and New Jersey may be directed to O’Hagan Meyer’s team at (215) 461-3300.

Written by: Jaime L. Duguay, Esq.