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Q. We have requested a medical certification from an employee who is seeking FMLA leave. We have our own certification form, and gave the employee a copy. The employee came back with a form letter from the doctor’s office stating that they charge a fee for filling out FMLA certification forms, and a note from the doctor stating that the employee was injured and needed FMLA leave. Do we have to accept the note in lieu of our form?

A. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter whether a medical certification is written on your preferred form or on the back of a bar napkin. So long as the document is signed by a health care provider, and is “complete” and “sufficient” in the sense that it provides the employer with all of the information needed to determine if the leave is covered by the FMLA, then the certification should be accepted. But that does not mean that you should unquestioningly accept a “doctor’s note” in place of a complete FMLA certification. 

In the scenario above, the doctor’s note does not include all of the necessary information, such as the dates and expected duration of the employee’s leave. Here, we would recommend informing the employee in writing that it is his responsibility to obtain a complete and sufficient certification, and to pay any associated costs or fees. Give the employee a reasonable period of time in which to do this – at least 7 days, and more if they employee has a reasonable explanation for the delay. If the employee fails or refuses to provide a proper certification (on your form or otherwise), you can deny the leave.

However, a more detailed note or letter from the doctor might suffice, even if it is not on your preferred form. Exactly how much information is needed will depend upon the specific circumstances. Again, if you need more information to determine whether the FMLA applies, the appropriate course is to inform the employee in writing of the specific information needed to make the certification complete and sufficient. 

But what if the certification actually was written on the back of a bar napkin? Given the size of most cocktail napkins, it is unlikely that the certification would be complete or sufficient. (That would probably require at least a dinner napkin.) Even if it were, we would strongly recommend contacting the health care provider to authenticate the certification, and perhaps seeking a second opinion.