Thursday, January 17, 2008

FMLA does not protect employees who fail to certify absences

Treatment for substance abuse is a serious health condition covered by the FMLA. Unexcused absences from work are not. The distinction between these two categories made all the difference for Krzysztof Chalimoniuk, who was terminated by Interstate Brands Corporation for excessive absences. In Chalimoniuk v. Interstate Brands Corporation, decided last week, the 7th Circuit upheld the termination and affirmed the trial court's dismissal of Chalimoniuk's FMLA claim.

Chalimoniuk had been battling alcohol addiction for 15 years. On Friday, July 28, he stopped on his way home from work, bought a large amount of alcohol, and over the next three days drank so much he lost his memory of that weekend. He was scheduled to work at IBC the following Monday (July 31), Wednesday (August 2), and Thursday (August 3). On Saturday, July 29, in the midst of his binge, his wife realized he had relapsed and called Fairbanks Hospital to see if she could bring her husband in for treatment. On Tuesday, August 1, Chalimoniuk called his physician's office but it was closed that day. On Wednesday, August 2, he called his doctor's office again, this time speaking to a nurse or receptionist who spoke to the doctor and referred Chalimoniuk to Fairbanks Hospital. On that same day, Chalimoniuk called Fairbanks Hospital and his insurance company to arrange his admission to the hospital. Because of a delay in obtaining insurance approval, Chalimoniuk was not admitted until August 4. He remained in the hospital until August 10. The FMLA certification completed by his doctor stated that he was in treatment from "7/29 - 8/11. Return 8/14."

Chalimoniuk's absences on July 31, August 2, and August 3 put him over the limit under IBC's attendance policy, unless they were covered by the FMLA. Because he did not start his inpatient treatment until August 4, IBC did not grant Chalimoniuk FMLA leave for his three missed work days, and terminated his employment under its attendance policy.

The regulations to the FMLA provide that substance abuse is a serious health condition only if the employee is receiving treatment, and not merely because of the employee's use of the substance:

Substance abuse may be a serious health condition if the conditions of this section are met. However, FMLA leave may only be taken for treatment for substance abuse by a health care provider or by a provider of health care services on referral by a health care provider. On the other hand, absence because of the employee’s use of the substance, rather than for treatment, does not qualify for FMLA leave. 29 C.F.R. 825.114(d).

Thus, under this regulation, Chalimoniuk was entitled to FMLA leave only for treatment for substance abuse. Because he was not in treatment until August 4, his three prior absences were not covered by the FMLA.

Chalimoniuk claimed that his medical certification was incomplete or invalid, creating a duty for IBC to alert him to the deficiency and allow him an opportunity to cure it. The FMLA regulations do impose such a duty on employers. "The employer shall advise an employee whenever the employer finds a certification incomplete, and provide the employee a reasonable opportunity to cure any such deficiency." 29 C.F.R. 825.305(d). IBC did not deny the FMLA leave not because the Certification was incomplete but because they believed it inaccurately overstated the time period that Chalimoniuk was in treatment. Moreover, even if the Certification was incomplete, it would have been impossible for Chalimoniuk to cure the deficiencies, because even he admitted that his treatment did not begin until August 4.

It would be an understatement to say that Chalimoniuk presented an at-risk termination, and it may strike some as unfair that IBC was allowed to terminate him purely because of an administrative delay in his being admitted for treatment. Chalimoniuk and his wife appear to have done everything right -- she called the hospital as soon as she found him drunk, they promptly tried to reach his doctor but could not, and got him admitted to hospital as quickly as their insurer would allow. Nevertheless, the FMLA does not protect him because his treatment did not begin until his actual admission for treatment. I suppose one could rationalize a result in which his treatment would be deemed to have started on the 29th when Chalimoniuk's wife made the call to the hospital, but that would strain the reality of his actual treatment. After all, even Chalimoniuk freely admitted that despite the dates on the Certification, he did not start treatment until he was admitted on August 4.

Most often, FMLA cases teach employers the importance of making sure that all their i's are dotted and t's are crossed. This case illustrates that the same is equally as important for employees, and that employers should consistently apply the FMLA's requirements to employees have failed to properly certify their absences.