A Change to the Mailbox Rule in the Third Circuit
In an opinion released August 5, 2014, the Third Circuit handed down a decision in Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., reviving a FMLA suit based on a reinterpretation of the “mailbox rule.”
Lisa Lupyan worked for Corinthian Colleges as an instructor. In 2007, her supervisor noticed she seemed depressed and suggested she take a leave of absence and submit an application for short term disability. The human resources department at Corinthian reviewed her application and information submitted by her physician and determined that she would be better suited for FMLA instead of personal leave.
On December 19, 2007, Lupyan met with an HR representative, who instructed her to check Family Medical Leave on her application, but did not discuss what FMLA leave was. According to Corinthian Colleges, the HR department sent out a letter that day which described Lupyan’s rights under the FMLA. Lupyan denied ever receiving the letter and claimed she did not know that she was on FMLA leave until she attempted to return to work. In the beginning of April 2008, Lupyan supplied Corinthian Colleges with a full release from her doctor. Corinthian then responded and informed Lupyan that because she had not returned within the twelve weeks of allotted FMLA leave time, her position was terminated. Lupyan brought suit alleging that Corinthian Colleges interfered with her FMLA rights by failing to give her notice of those rights and the fact that she was on FMLA leave, and that Corinthian Colleges retaliated against her for using FMLA.
The lower court determined that Lupyan had been notified of her rights because of the mailbox rule. The rule states that if a properly directed letter if placed in a post office box or given to a mail carrier, then receipt will be presumed. The Third Circuit clarified that this is not an absolute presumption, but rather one that can be rebutted by opposing evidence. If there is a dispute regarding receipt, this dispute should be resolved by the jury or finder of fact, and is not a matter of law. The Third Circuit noted that the testimony of the plaintiff alone was could be sufficient to rebut the presumption and also recognized that it is much harder to prove a negative than a positive. The opinion also states that the Court is aware that the mailbox rule is useful at the summary judgment stage, but cannot be considered an immutable legal command.
Part of the Court’s reasoning behind this decision is the ease of obtaining proof of receipt, as opposed to when the common law rule was first created. Now, companies can send a letter by certified mail, and obtain a signed receipt that shows the intended recipient had actual receipt.
Based on this decision, best practices for employers in the future when sending out legally required notices, as under the FMLA, would be to use certified mail.