Q: An employee has asked for intermittent FMLA leave due to a serious health condition. He has turned in a medical certification, but the doctor who signed it is his general practitioner, not a specialist in the condition for which he is seeking leave. Can I ask for a second opinion?

A: Yes, but be sure you understand the procedure.

The FMLA rules say that an employer can ask for a second medical certification if it “has reason to doubt the validity of a medical certification.” The rules do not specify what type of “reason” will suffice. It may be that you simply do not trust the employee, that the doctor has a reputation for writing dubious medical certifications, that the leave the employee is asking for is disproportionate to the condition, or any other reason. That the doctor providing the certification is not an expert in the relevant field could also be a legitimate reason to ask for a second opinion. 

This does not, however, mean that employers should make a practice of asking for a second opinion every time an employee seeks FMLA leave. First, second opinions are always at the expense of the employer. This includes not only the cost of the evaluation itself, but also the employee’s reasonable out of pocket travel expenses. Second, even if the second opinion conflicts with the initial certification, the issue will not be resolved. Rather, the employer must pay for yet a third opinion, which is final and binding. 

In light of the costs and the likelihood that a second or third opinion will, in most cases, simply confirm an employee’s entitlement to FMLA leave, the second opinion option should generally be reserved for particularly questionable leave requests.