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In FMLA Case, Notice by Regular Mail Is Not Enough

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on August 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Remember the mailbox rule? Just the thought of it brings us back to our first year of law school. And believe it or not, it still comes up in cases today.

Last week, the Third Circuit had a chance to review the common law presumption of delivery, and noted that it in this day and age, that time-honored presumption may not be enough for employers attempting to give their employees legal notice.

Lisa Lupyan's Medical Leave

In 2004, Lisa Lupyan was hired as an instructor at Corinthian Colleges, Inc. ("CCI"), and in December 2007, Lupyan's supervisor noticed that she was depressed. At his suggestion, she decided to take "personal leave," but when she provided certification from her health care provider, CCI's human resources department characterized her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), rather than as personal leave.

The FMLA provides employees a period of 12 weeks for medical leave. If an employee takes more than 12 weeks, return to employment is not guaranteed. Under FMLA, an employee must have general notice (posters, employee handbooks) and particularized notice (a letter), informing her of her rights under FMLA.

FMLA Claims

Lupyan attempted to return to work 18 weeks after her leave began, and she was terminated because she did not return to work within the 12 weeks provided for in the FMLA and because of low student enrollment. She sued CCI for interfering with her rights under the FMLA and for retaliation for talking medical leave.

She claimed that she did not receive any information from CCI letting her know that they categorized her leave under the FMLA, and did not know she had to return to work within 12 weeks.

On a motion for summary judgment, the district court ruled for CCI and Lupyan appealed.

Third Circuit's Analysis

Since an employer's failure to give proper notice can give rise to an employee's FMLA interference claim, a key question in the case was whether Lupyan received a letter explaining that her leave was considered FLMA leave. Lupyan claimed that she did not receive the letter, while CCI presented affidavits that it sent the letter -- signed by employees almost four years after the letter was allegedly sent.

The Third Circuit, unlike the district court, was not convinced by the common law presumption created by the mailbox rule, and instead, found that Lupyan's testimony saying she did not receive the letter was enough to present a question of fact -- a jury would have to determine whether her testimony was convincing.

In so holding, the Third Circuit stated:

In this age of computerized communications and handheld devices, it is certainly not expecting too much to require businesses that wish to avoid a material dispute about the receipt of a letter to use some form of mailing that includes verifiable receipt when mailing something as important as a legally mandated notice.

Though a reasonable outcome, this case is significant in that it is the first case to address the "method of providing an FMLA notice," according to Business Insurance. Though only applicable in the Third Circuit, it would be wise for all companies to be on notice about this decision. As the Third Circuit mentioned, the cost in making sure an employee gets the proper notice is "negligible."

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