Court Decisions Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Novak v. MetroHealth Medical Center

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 04-02253, 2007 WL 2807004
September 28, 2007

(Note: This alert addresses how the definition of disability under the ADA applies to the FMLA.)

Facts of the Case

Ms. Donna Novak is employed by the MetroHealth Medical Center ("MetroHealth"), which has a no-fault attendance policy that assigns points to employees based on hours of unexcused absences. If points exceed 112 during a year, the employee is discharged. Ms. Novak was discharged when she accumulated 124 points between April 16, 2003 and April 16, 2004. In the months leading up to her discharge on April 16, 2004, she called into work on several occasions citing back pain and her daughter's postpartum depression as reasons for her absence. Ms. Novak sought leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) once she realized that her points exceeded 112.

The parties significantly disputed whether Ms. Novak was entitled to FMLA leave for either her lower back injury or due to her daughter's postpartum depression. In April 2004, MetroHealth held a "pre-discharge" meeting to discuss if Ms. Novak's absences qualified under the FMLA. However, the meeting was suspended so that she could have additional time to submit authentication forms. Ms. Novak submitted additional certification forms, including one completed by Dr. Schubeck stating that her 18 year old daughter, Victoria, suffered from postpartum depression that would last for one week.

MetroHealth determined that Ms. Novak's absences did not qualify as FMLA leave and that she provided "contradictory information" that did not qualify as leave under any policy. Ms. Novak filed a complaint, in part, alleging FMLA interference and FMLA retaliation.

Issues of the Case

  1. For the purposes of this brief, the primary issue is whether Ms. Novak is entitled to leave under the FMLA. The ADA's definition of disability will play an important role, specifically, in determining whether Ms. Novak is entitled to leave to care for her daughter.

Arguments & Analysis

1. First, Ms. Novak contended the district court erred in granting summary judgment to MetroHealth on her claim of FMLA interference.

The FMLA prohibits an employer from counting FMLA leave against the employee under a "no fault" attendance policy. An employee may file a cause of action for FMLA interference if the employee believes his/her FMLA rights were denied. Ms. Novak stated her back injury was an FMLA qualifying condition and her certification forms were sufficient proof of the condition. The FMLA further provides that a medical certification form is presumptively valid if it contains the required information, but the employer may overcome this presumption by showing that it is invalid or inauthentic.

2. MetroHealth argued it was not obligated to credit Ms. Novak's certification because her certification was "invalid or inauthentic" due to "suspicious and contradictory" information, and that she had sufficient opportunity to correct the forms.

Specifically, the certification did not contain details such as when the serious health condition began and its probable duration. Moreover, MetroHealth claimed the certification was not authentic because it was not completed by Dr. Wolszek — the physician of record authorized by MetroHealth to complete the certification form — but by Dr. Wolszek's office assistant, and Dr. Wolszek had neither recently examined Ms. Novak or had knowledge of her current condition.

3. Second, Ms. Novak argued that the FMLA authorizes care for Victoria's postpartum depression.

Specifically, the FMLA authorizes leave to care for a child 18 years of age or older if the child is suffering from a serious health condition and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability. The court applied the ADA's definition of a "mental or physical disability" in order to determine whether Victoria had a disability. The court relied on Dr. Schubeck's certification form to determine that her post partum depression did not substantially limit her ability to care for herself because it was not severe and would only last a week or two. A short-term restriction on a major life activity generally does not constitute a disability under the ADA. The court concluded the FMLA does not authorize Ms. Novak to take leave to care for her daughter.

Rulings

The Eleventh Circuit found no error in the district court's conclusion that Ms. Novak was not entitled to FMLA leave because of her lower back injury or her daughter's post partum depression.

Policy & Practice

FMLA – Immediate Family Relationship

The FMLA allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period, in part, to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. However, leave is available "to care for a child 18 years of age or older only if the child is suffering from a serious health condition and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability." In making this determination, the U.S. Department of Labor created regulations requiring the use of the ADA's definition of disability. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.113(c)(2). What condition, if any, may a child 18 years of age or older have that meets the ADA's definition of disability, but is only serious enough to require care 12 weeks out of the year? In contrast, a minor child, spouse, or parent is not required to have a disability to satisfy the FMLA requirement of immediate family relationship.

Short-term Restrictions

The Eleventh Circuit cited the Sixth Circuit in Hein v. All America Plywood Co. for the rule that a "short term restriction on a major life activity generally does not constitute a disability under the ADA."

Links

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

Southeast ADA Center

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