Legal Alert: Collective Bargaining Agreement's Return to Work Requirements Can be More Demanding than the FMLA's

Date   May 15, 2006
The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, which impose more stringent return to work requirements than imposed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, do not violate the act.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the terms of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) can impose more burdensome return to work requirements on employees returning to work after a medical leave of absence than what is specifically required by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). See Harrell v. United States Postal Service (7th Cir. May 2006).

In this case, the employee, Harrell, took a medical leave of absence and submitted a medical form from his doctor stating the reasons for his absence and estimating when he could return to work. Subsequently, the Postal Service informed Harrell that, according to postal regulations (which the court held were part of the CBA to which Harrell was subject), to return to work he must submit documentation showing the nature and treatment of his illness, the dates he was unable to work, and any medication he was taking. The CBA also provided that an employee returning from a medical leave of absence might be examined by the employer's medical officer after a review of the employee's medical documentation.

Harrell refused to submit any documentation other than the return to work certification prepared by his physician, which did not include all of the information required by the CBA. Harrell also refused to submit to an examination by the Postal Service's medical officer, claiming he had submitted sufficient documentation under the FMLA to permit him to be reinstated. Ultimately, the Postal Service fired Harrell and he sued in federal court, claiming violations of the FMLA.

The trial court threw out Harrell's claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed that decision.

The FMLA requires covered employers to give eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for, among other things, a serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform his or her job. Upon return from FMLA-covered leave, an employee is entitled to be reinstated to his or her prior position or an equivalent one with the same terms and benefits. Employers are prohibited from interfering with or denying an employee's FMLA rights. Harrell claimed the Postal Service violated the FMLA by refusing to return him to his position after his physician provided an unqualified certification of his fitness to return to duty.

In finding that the CBA's return to work requirements do not violate the FMLA, the Seventh Circuit examined two separate provisions of the act. Section 2652 of the FMLA states that nothing contained in the FMLA diminishes any greater leave rights provided to employees by a CBA or benefits plan and nothing in a CBA or benefits plan can diminish the rights guaranteed by the FMLA. However, § 2614(a)(4) permits employers to impose a uniformly applied policy requiring employees returning from FMLA leave to obtain a medical certification indicating that the employee is fit to return to work. This section also states that the provision permitting return to work certifications does not supersede "a valid State or local law or collective bargaining agreement that governs the return to work of employees."

The court held that although generally a CBA cannot diminish the rights guaranteed by the FMLA, § 2614(a)(4) is an exception to this general provision. Thus, a return to work certification requirement that is more burdensome than the FMLA's does not violate the act. Accordingly, the court held that Postal Service did not violate the FMLA by requiring Harrell to comply with the CBA's return to work requirements.

The Eighth Circuit reached a similar conclusion in Harris v. Emergency Providers Inc., in which it held that an employer did not violate the FMLA by requiring an employee returning from an FMLA-covered absence to undergo a fitness for duty examination. The court reached this decision because the examination requirement was consistent with the terms of the relevant CBA and there was no evidence that the requirement was applied inconsistently.

The Seventh and Eighth Circuits' decisions are consistent with the DOL's opinion letter dated September 11, 2000 (FMLA-113), in which the DOL stated that the provisions of the FMLA do not supersede any valid state or local law or CBA. Thus, according to the DOL's opinion letter, if the terms of a CBA require a fitness for duty examination in addition to a return to work certification, the CBA's terms apply. The DOL noted that the CBA's terms are subject to certain conditions such as the ADA's requirement that any fitness for duty examination required as a condition of returning to work be job related and consistent with business necessity.

Employers' Bottom Line:

This decision may be helpful to employers who are defending similar claims arising from return to work requirements contained in CBAs, if the relevant court follows the decisions of the Seventh and Eighth Circuits. However, it is important to remember that if the terms of a CBA diminish an employee's substantive rights under the FMLA in areas other than fitness for duty certifications, they may be held to violate the act. Additionally, the analysis in this case likely would not apply to a more stringent return to work provision that is part of a non-union employer's personnel policies, since there is no applicable CBA.

If you have questions regarding the impact of the FMLA on the provisions of a CBA, or other labor or employment related questions, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work.