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A Reading Hospital office worker’s Family and Medical Leave Act claim has allowed the Third Circuit to set a standard for when an employee’s right to return to work is triggered.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the hospital, holding that a jury could find that the note Vanessa Budhun submitted from her doctor stating that she would be able to return to work could trigger the hospital’s responsibility to reinstate her and that the hospital interfered with that right when it told her that she couldn’t return.

“Our decision is in accord with the other courts of appeals that have considered the question of when an employer’s duty to reinstate is triggered,” Judge Michael Chagares said on behalf of the three-judge panel in Budhun v. Reading Hospital and Medical Center.

Citing to the Sixth Circuit’s 2005 opinion in Brumbalough v. Camelot Care Centers, Chagares said, “The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that ‘once an employee submits a statement from her health care provider which indicates that she may return to work, the employer’s duty to reinstate her has been triggered under the FMLA.’”

He next looked to the Seventh Circuit’s 2013 opinion in James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago. “There, the plaintiff presented his employer with several fitness-for-duty certifications from his doctor, although all of them contained job-related restrictions. The court held that the employer’s duty to reinstate the plaintiff would have been triggered had the fitness-for-duty certifications provided that he could have returned to duty without restrictions,” Chagares said. “Because none of the doctor’s notes stated that he could work without restrictions, no duty was triggered as a matter of law. The difference between James and the instant case is apparent: Budhun’s Aug. 10, 2010, note from Dr. Battista stated that she could return with ‘no restrictions.’”

Budhun worked for the hospital in a clerical job, as a “credentialing assistant,” according to the opinion. About 60 percent of the job was typing. After an accident unrelated to work July 30, 2010, Budhun broke the bone in her hand that connects her pinky to her wrist.

Shortly after she arrived at work with a splint on her hand, Budhun got an email from the human resources department telling her that her injury prevented her from “working full duty” with FMLA documents attached.

The following day, Budhun saw Dr. Richard Battista, who later gave Budhun a note saying that she could return to work Aug. 16, 2010. It said, “No restrictions in splint,” according to the opinion.

Upon returning to work that day, the human resources department emailed Budhun and indicated that she would need to work at full capacity, which wouldn’t be possible without all of her digits functioning.

Budhun then had various doctor appointments and ended up staying out of work until the fall.

On Sept. 25, 2010, the hospital offered Budhun’s job to another person, according to the opinion. This suit followed.

“Even if Budhun actually attempted to return to work on Aug. 16, 2010, Reading argues that it is still entitled to summary judgment because it would have sent her home because she could not perform an essential function of her job. The failure to restore an employee to her position at the conclusion of her leave does not violate the FMLA if the employee remains unable to perform an ‘essential function’ of the position,” according to the opinion.

Under the FMLA, the responsibility to determine whether an employee can perform the essential functions of her job rests with her doctor, not her employer, Chagares said.

“Reading was free to provide Budhun with a list of the specific functions that were essential to her job so that Dr. Battista could determine if Budhun could perform them, but it did not. Instead, Spinka unilaterally determined, over email, that Budhun could not perform an essential function because she had use of only seven fingers,” Chagares said, referring to the human resources worker with whom Budhun had corresponded, Stacey Spinka.

In a footnote earlier in the opinion, Chagares had explained, “We do not reach the issue of whether an employer may ever decline to allow an employee, whose physician has been provided a list of essential functions and whose physician provided a fitness-for-duty certification, from returning to work.”

Justin Swidler of Swartz Swidler in Cherry Hill, N.J., argued on behalf of Budhun and referred questions to his colleague, Joshua Boyette, who declined to comment.

Vincent Candiello of Post & Schell in Harrisburg argued on behalf of Reading Hospital and referred a request for comment to the hospital, which didn’t immediately respond.

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or sspencer@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.

(Copies of the 22-page opinion in Budhun v. Reading Hospital and Medical Center, PICS No. 14-1354, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)