Sending a legally mandated notice via ordinary U.S. mail is not sufficient proof that the intended recipient of the notice actually received it, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled in a case with potentially far reaching implications for employers.
The case involves an instructor at one of the largest post-secondary education companies in the U.S. who was encouraged by her supervisor to take a personal leave of absence to deal with a depression problem.
The employee first submitted a leave application seeking “family leave” and later sent in a doctor’s certificate attesting to her mental condition and supporting her request for leave. The company then mailed her several documents and notices designating her absence as one covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). As mandated by the FMLA, the documents detailed her rights and responsibilities under the statute.
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More than 12 weeks later, the instructor notified Human Resources staff that her doctor had finally cleared her to return for work. But she was informed that her position was no longer available since she had not returned to work within the 12-week leave period available under the FMLA. The instructor sued her employer claiming that she had not received the FMLA documents that had ostensibly been mailed to her several weeks previously.
A U.S. District Court initially found in favor of the employer and summarily rejected the employee’s lawsuit. The trial court held that under the “mailbox rule” the instructor was presumed to have received the FMLA documents simply by virtue of the fact that it was sent via U.S. postal mail.
However, the appellate court for the Third Circuit reversed that judgment on the basis that the employer had no proof that the instructor had actually received the FMLA documents. The court held that the company had failed to fulfill its FMLA notice obligations because it was unable to establish delivery of the documents to the instructor.
Take-Aways For Employers
Unlike overnight mail and certified mail, which offer verifiable receipt of a document, regular U.S mail offers only a much weaker presumption of delivery, the court noted. As such, if an employee denies receipt of a legally mandated mailing, it becomes the employer’s responsibility to prove that the employee received it, the court held. Businesses that wish to avoid legal disputes over the receipt of a letter should make sure to include a verifiable receipt when mailing it out, the court said.
The ruling could prove costly for employers and plan administrators because it means they have to send all FMLA and other legal notices via certified mail or overnight mail to avoid complications. It also serves as another reminder of how important it is for employers and HR staff to maintain regular communications with employers that are on FMLA leave.
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