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Third Circuit Weakens Mailbox Rule in FMLA Notice Case

September 29, 2014

By Linda Martin

In a recent case involving the validity of a notice to employees of FMLA rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit significantly weakened the longstanding “mailbox rule,” under which a letter placed in the U.S. mail had been presumed to be received by the intended recipient.  

Under protection of the “mailbox rule,” parties could mail legal notices and other time-sensitive correspondence and documents by first class mail, United States Postal Service, under the presumption that, unless returned by the postal service, the intended party actually received the mail. This practice goes back more than a century, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that when a letter “is proved to have been either put into the post-office or delivered to the postman, it is presumed . . . that it reached its destination at the regular time, and was received by the person to whom it was addressed.” Rosenthal v. Walker, 111 U.S. 185, 193 (1884).  

Under the mailbox rule, an organization could prove that a document was mailed, and thus presumed delivered, merely by providing testimony or an affidavit from the person or persons who were responsible for each step of the mailing process within the organization. But in Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 15019 (August 5, 2014), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the mailbox rule is no longer sufficient to establish receipt as a matter of law. In doing so, the Court made it clear that parties who rely on the mailbox rule when mailing important documents do so at their peril.

The Lupyan a case concerned an employer’s obligation to provide notice to employees of rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and specifically, whether the employer in that case was entitled to the presumption afforded by the mailbox rule. Lupyan was terminated from her employment for, among other things, failing to return to work within the time period allotted by the FMLA. Lupyan sued her employer under the FMLA, claiming retaliatory discharge and interference with her FMLA rights by failing to provide the required notice of rights at the time she requested leave. After discovery ended, the employer filed a motion for summary judgment in which it asserted that it had mailed the required notice of rights to Lupyan by regular, first class mail, and also provided evidence that the letter was mailed in a manner consistent with the employer’s postal practices. The District Court granted summary judgment to the employer based on the mailbox rule presumption.  

The Third Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling, and in doing so nullified the mailbox rule:

In this age of computerized communications and handheld devices, it is certainly not expecting too much to require businesses that wish to avoid a material dispute about the receipt of a letter to use some form of mailing that includes verifiable receipt when mailing something as important as a legally mandated notice. The negligible cost and inconvenience of doing so is dwarfed by the practical consequences and potential unfairness of simply relying on business practices in the sender’s mailroom.  

The Third Circuit’s ruling in the Lupyan case is a simple and important reminder to organizations and individuals alike that best evidence in litigation is a receipt proving that a mailing was actually received. Moving forward, the best practice is to send legally-mandated notices and other time-sensitive communications in a manner that permits the sender to trace and confirm delivery of the mailing, e.g., by certified mail or private courier.    

For more information on how Willig, Williams & Davidson can help you keep up with the rapidly changing rules governing interactions between employers and employees, including rules and rights related to employee notice, feel free to contact any of our Labor and Employment attorneys.


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