In order to support a valid claim of retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee must demonstrate that the reason given for an adverse employment action was pretextual, and that the employee’s request for or use of FMLA leave was the actual basis of the action. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an employer’s rejection of an invalid FMLA certification was a valid reason for termination, and that the employee’s inability to proffer evidence of an alternate explanation for the company’s actions led to the dismissal of her lawsuit. Coffman v. Ford Motor Company, 6th Cir., No. 10-3842, unpublished opinion, 11/22/11.

The FMLA entitles eligible employees to twelve weeks of unpaid leave each year for, among other things, a “serious health condition” that precludes the employee from performing his or her job. Employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against an employee who exercises her FMLA rights. In order to succeed on a claim of retaliation under the FMLA, an employee must first present a prima facie case that includes her eligibility for FMLA leave, the fact that she took the leave, and the fact that an adverse action was taken against her. The burden then shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate business reason for its action. Once that is done, the employee cannot succeed on a retaliation claim unless she can prove that the proffered reason is actually a pretext. To establish pretext, the employee must either show that the proffered reason had no factual basis, that the given reason did not actually motivate the action, or that such reason was insufficient to warrant the action.

Jami Coffman began working for Ford Motor Company in July 1999. In 2004, she had frequent absences, which she attributed to health issues. Although she provided medical documentation for many of those absences, she failed to provide valid and timely information for ten periods of absence within an eight moth period. Those ten occurrences led Coffman into the company’s disciplinary process, established under a collective bargaining agreement, resulting in her termination. That termination occurred shortly after Coffman had been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Coffman then sued Ford, claiming that her termination was the result of her request for FMLA leave. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the company, and the Sixth Circuit upheld that decision, holding that Coffman fell short of demonstrating that Ford’s reason for the termination was pretext for FMLA retaliation.

Under the company’s written policies, employees requesting FMLA leave would receive documents to be completed by a physician within 15 days. The policy specifically pointed out that incomplete certification could cause absences to be viewed as “absence without leave,” which could lead to discipline up to termination.

Coffman submitted paperwork that consisted of two forms that provided two divergent diagnoses for the absences, and neither included supporting information. Further, the signatures on the documents differed markedly from signatures of the same doctors on medical documentation previously submitted by Coffman. Faced with the contradictory, questionable certifications, Ford sought clarification by asking Coffman to request medical records to support the certifications. In response, Coffman’s doctor provided a single document that included only a list of medications. Rather than supporting the initial certification, this information simply created new contradictions. Ford took no further action, and viewed the absences as unexcused, which ultimately led to Coffman’s termination and her subsequent law suit.

In spite of Coffmans’ argument that Ford improperly classified her as AWOL, the Sixth Circuit found that although FMLA certifications that contain all required information are presumptively valid, an employer can rebut that presumption by demonstrating that the certification is invalid, contradictory, or of an otherwise suspicious nature. Here, the certifications submitted were medically contradictory and the inconsistent signatures created suspicion. To its credit, the company took the additional step of asking for further information in an attempt to clarify the contradictory nature of those certifications. However, that supplemental information actually increased the confusion, supporting the company’s decision to deny FMLA leave for the absences.

Employers cannot avoid liability under the FMLA simply by arbitrarily labeling an employee’s certification as “invalid.” Incomplete FMLA certifications are distinguishable from invalid ones. When a certification is incomplete – that is, it does not provide sufficient information to justify FMLA leave – an employee must be provided with a reasonable opportunity to cure any alleged deficiency. The regulations that support the FMLA make it clear that employers must work to clarify certifications offered by employees, and can do so by asking for a second opinion from a different provider (at the employer’s expense), or get permission from the employee to clarify or authenticate questionable certification with the healthcare provider. It is in the best interest of both employers and employees to use these discretionary measures to avoid disputes that could lead to disruptive and expensive lawsuits.