University’s Decision To Terminate Librarian After Failure To Submit FMLA Certification Upheld

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Nov 30, 2023

Abdulkadir Mohamed worked in George Washington University’s main library for nearly three decades.  In 2019, Mohamed reached out to the University about taking leave under the FMLA to attend to his father in Italy.  The University told Mohamed he could apply for leave through a contractor, Lincoln Financial, and warned Mohamed that he would need to send Lincoln a medical certification form by a certain deadline to qualify for the leave.

Mohamed applied to Lincoln, seeking time off from September 24 to November 29.  Lincoln acknowledged Mohamed’s request and told him that its response was “not an approval,” and that he would need to provide a completed medical certification within 15 days after his scheduled leave start date.  Lincoln also cautioned that failure to provide the certification may result in delay of his leave request and that time taken may count against him in accordance with the University’s attendance policy.

On September 20, the University emailed Mohamed to tell him that his FMLA request was still pending, per his submission of the medical certification to Lincoln.  Mohamed was authorized to begin his leave while in pending status, but warned that if the medical certification was not submitted, he would not be covered.

Mohamed seemed to understand, replying that the information was very helpful, that he was going to commence his FMLA leave while it was still pending, and would send the certification directly to Lincoln in a timely fashion.  Mohamed asked Lincoln to extend the 15-day certification deadline twice; Lincoln denied both of those requests.

Although Mohamed began his leave in late September, he waited over a month to fly to Italy. Mohamed claimed he used that time in America to provide “emotional support” to his father and obtain an affordable airline ticket.

Having not submitted the medical certification, on October 9, Lincoln denied Mohamed’s FMLA application.  The University called and emailed Mohamed repeatedly, notifying him his leave had been denied and he needed to contact Human Resources.  The University checked to make sure that Mohamed had not been in touch with Lincoln either, and Lincoln confirmed that it had heard nothing from Mohamed.  In early November, the University fired Mohamed.

Mohamed sued under the FMLA, claiming interference with his FMLA rights.

For an FMLA interference claim, Mohamed must show (1) employer conduct that tends to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of FMLA rights; and (2) prejudice arising from the interference.

The Court determined that the University did nothing to interfere with Mohamed’s ability to take FMLA leave.  Mohamed argued that the University approved him for leave, told him to communicate solely with Lincoln about the leave, and then fired him for abandoning his job, even though the University knew he had not abandoned his job.

The Court did not find Mohamed’s arguments persuasive.  The University never told Mohamed he was fully approved for leave and warned him about his conditional status pending submission of the certification.  The Court noted that the University was permitted to require a medical certification and impose a 15-day deadline for submitting the appropriate documentation under the FMLA.

While employers can relax the 15-day deadline where practicable, here, Mohamed was not making a diligent, good faith effort to comply with the requirement.  Mohamed did not provide the FMLA certification forms to his father’s healthcare providers until November 6, more than three weeks after it was due, which the Court said was not diligent.

Mohamed said he had difficulty getting the certification completed because he needed his father’s consent and the doctor was located overseas.  The Court stated that the University was not able to provide leniency in this situation because Mohamed was non-responsive to their calls and emails.

The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the University.

Mohamed v. George Wash. Univ. (D.D.C. Sep. 22, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 169745.

Note: While this case is a straightforward application of the FMLA process, it is noteworthy due to the diligence the University took to work with the employee and adhere to its obligations under the FMLA.  The University attempted to contact the employee several times, worked with the contractor, and followed-up in writing about the steps the employee needed to take to obtain approval for his leave. 

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