THIRD CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS RENDERS DECISION IN FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE ACT RETURN TO WORK CASE

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed the trial court’s decision that granted summary judgment in favor of defendant in a retaliation and interference case under the Family Medical Leave Act.

In rendering its decision in Budhun v. Reading Hospital and Medical Center, the Third Circuit set the standard the employer is required to meet regarding an employee’s request to return to work after taking FMLA leave.  In this case, Vanessa Budhun was hired as a credentialing assistant by an affiliate of Reading Hospital and Medical Center. Budhun estimated that approximately 60% of her time consisted of typing.  After she was hired, Budhun broke a bone in her right hand, which resulted in limited full use of her hands and fingers for typing.  She applied for FMLA leave, which included a note from her physician stating Budhun could return to work after a certain period of time, and she was ultimately approved for leave.  However, two days after Budhun’s FMLA leave expired, Reading replaced Budhun.

Budhun attempted to return to work, but, Reading informed her that she could not return because she could not perform her job at her pre-injury level.  Budhun sued Reading alleging interference and retaliation under the FMLA.  Reading argued that since Budhun could not perform an essential duty of her job, its decision was not violative of the FMLA.

The Third Circuit ultimately held that a jury could find that the physician’s note stating that she could return to work could trigger the hospital’s responsibility to reinstate her employment, and Reading interfered with Budhun’s right when it told her she could not return.  Under the FMLA, it is the responsibility of the doctor, not the employer, to determine whether an employee can perform the essential functions of the job.  However, the hospital failed to provide Budhun with a list of essential job functions to submit to her physician to make such a determination.  The court also held that replacing Budhun constituted an adverse employment action, an element required to establish an FMLA violation, and emphasized that formal termination is not a necessary element in a retaliation action.