Return to Sender: Third Circuit Says USPS Can’t Be Trusted With FMLA Notices

August 25, 2014
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New Jersey employers typically send required legal notices by regular mail via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). And for good reason — the “mailbox rule” of the courts has long held that a letter sent to the correct address with proper postage affixed creates the legal presumption that it was received. FMLA NoticesA recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, however, may alter employers’ expectations, particularly with respect to critical notices sent under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the court held that sending notices via USPS may not suffice to satisfy the statute’s notice requirements.
FMLA Notice Requirements
Under the FMLA, employers must provide employees with notice of their eligibility for FMLA protection as well as their rights and responsibilities within five business daysof having enough information to determine whether the requested leave qualifies for FMLA leave. The failure to provide FMLA notices may constitute an interference, restraint or denial of the exercise of the employee’s FMLA rights. FMLA violations can result in the award of monetary damages and attorneys’ fees as well as equitable relief such as reinstatement.
The Facts of the Case
Lisa Lupyan was working as a teacher for Corinthian Colleges, Inc. when she began to suffer from depression. At the suggestion of her employer, Lupyan took a personal leave of absence from her position. After she provided medical certification of her illness, Corinthian College determined that Lunyan’s leave qualified under the FMLA and sent her the required paperwork by regular mail with the U.S. Postal Service. When Lupyan attempted to return to work after receiving clearance from her doctor, Corinthian informed her that she had been terminated for failing to return to work within the maximum 12 weeks allowed by law. Lupyan claimed that she had no knowledge that she was on FMLA leave, and subsequently filed suit against the employer for interfering with her FMLA rights. Thus, the central issue of the case was whether she was properly notified that her leave was designated as being FMLA leave and the requirements of such leave.
The Third Circuit’s Ruling
The Third Circuit concluded that sending a legal document via certified mail provides a “strong presumption” of receipt. However, a “weaker presumption” arises where delivery is sent via regular mail for which no proof of delivery or receipt is generated. In such case, the court ruled that the presumption of receipt can be rebutted through a simple denial. As further explained by the court: “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. The negligible cost and inconvenience of doing so is dwarfed by the practical consequences and potential unfairness of simply relying on business practices in the sender’s mailroom.”
The Message for Employers
In light of the Third Circuit’s decision, employers should always use any delivery method that provides confirmation of delivery. In addition to providing written notice of applicable legal requirements, it is advisable to reinforce the notice requirement by meeting with the affected employee to discuss the employment issue, such as FMLA leave, and to answer any questions to ensure proper understanding. If you have questions about the FMLA notices or want to ensure that your business is in compliance, please contact me, Gary Young, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck Labor and Employment attorney with whom you work.