Recent District of New Jersey Decision Reinforces Need for Common Sense in Responding to Employee Requests for Family and Medical Leave

The recent District of New Jersey decision in Conteh v. Francis E. Parker Memorial Home, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41360 (D.N.J. April 15, 2011) serves as a valuable reminder for employers that the exercise of basic common sense in responding to employee requests for family and medical leave can go a long way toward preventing litigation.

The plaintiff worked as a food service aide for the Memorial Home. When the plaintiff’s mother, who lived in Africa, fell ill, the plaintiff contacted the Memorial Home’s human resources manager (who was individually named as a defendant in the lawsuit) and requested time off from work to care for his mother. The human resources manager advised the plaintiff that he could not take a job-protected leave unless he first provided a certification from his mother’s doctor confirming that she was ill. When the plaintiff explained that given the distance between the United States and Africa, he would be unable to provide a medical certification before leaving for Africa, the manager informed the plaintiff that the only alternative was for him to resign and then reapply for employment when he returned to the United States. Convinced that he had no other choice, the plaintiff resigned his position so that he could travel to Africa to care for his mother. After the plaintiff’s mother died a week later, the plaintiff returned to the United States and reapplied for his position at the Memorial Home, providing his mother’s death certificate. The Memorial Home refused to rehire the plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed suit in the United States District Court, District of New Jersey, claiming that by failing to provide him with a leave of absence to care for his mother, the Memorial Home violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the New Jersey Family Leave Act (FLA). The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The Court denied the defendants’ motion as to the FMLA claim, noting that the FMLA’s express language requires that an employer allow an employee 15 days, or as soon as practicable to provide a medical certification. The Court held that “Plaintiff ha[d] stated a viable FMLA claim because a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Defendants violated the FMLA by failing to permit Plaintiff to first take his leave and then submit a certification within the time period permitted by the FMLA.” The Court granted the defendants’ motion as to the FLA claim because, unlike the FMLA, the employer has the authority to require that an employee submit a certification before taking such leave.

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