Generally, when an employee takes a medical leave of absence, treatment by a medical provider is often assumed. The frequency of the employee’s doctor’s visits is rarely scrutinized.
According to a recent Pennsylvania federal court decision in Watkins v. Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh that is not always a wise approach. When evaluating FMLA entitlements, the importance of verifying the employee’s continuing medical treatment cannot be ignored.
Watkins who worked for Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services (BVRS) as an employment specialist was a military veteran who suffers from PTSD. Watkins was injured in July of 2015 when someone fired multiple bullets at the car she was driving. Along with damages to her car, including tires shot out out and a shattered window, a bullet just missed her head, lodging itself in the driver’s side headrest. The random act of violence triggered Watkins PTSD symptoms. After the incident, she had difficulty functioning, experienced, anxiety, irritability, and stress. Additionally, Watkins was fearful of leaving her home and suffered from a loss of concentration.
In June of 2016 Watkins began experiencing performance issues, including submitting inaccurate client information for financial reimbursements. She was issued a notice of unsatisfactory work performance. Watkins was told to submit the necessary information to remedy the situation. She did not, was further counseled and performance issues continued. On July 5, Watkins did not report to work to complete backlogged paperwork saying she was having a mental health emergency. On July 6, BVRS received a letter from Watkins medical provider stating she was being treated for PTSD and given a return to work date as July 7. Watkins did not return to work as per her medical provider’s letter and instead had only sporadic attendance thereafter. Eventually, Watkins was terminated for job abandonment.
Watkins sued BVRS alleging they had failed to provide her with FMLA benefits to which she was entitled. BVRS asked the court to dismiss the case on summary judgment, in part because Watkins could not produce evidence that she had a serious health condition, (being a requirement) that would entitle her to the protections of FMLA. Because Watkins was never admitted to a hospital or had inpatient treatment, she had to show she was receiving continuing medical treatment from a healthcare provider for her serious medical condition.
The court recognized that PTSD can be a chronic aliment continuing over extended periods of time. Under FMLA, Watkins had to additionally show that she was receiving continuing treatment for PTSD. This would mean periodic visits to a medical provider at least twice a year. Even though Watkins testified that she had been in treatment for seven years and in the beginning, she had seen her medical provider regularly, she admitted that the visits were now on an as needed basis. Ultimately because Watkins could not establish that she visited a medical provider at least twice a year for PTSD, Watkins could not show that she had a serious medical condition and was entitled to FMLA leave.
Employers should look carefully at the certification form completed by an employee’s healthcare provider, when an employee requests FMLA for their own serious medical condition. There are two questions an employer will want answers to regarding whether or not the employee will qualify for an FMLA leave:
- Does the provider identify a period of hospitalization or identify recent dates of treatment?
- Does the medical provider state that the employee will need periodic visits with a medical provider at least twice a year?
A negative answer to those questions could indicate that the employee does not qualify for FMLA leave. That being said, it is important to consult with your HR professional and or legal counsel before denying FMLA leave.