One of the grounds for termination of employment under Act No. 262/2006 Coll., the Labour Code, as amended (the “Labour Code”) is a situation where the employee has lost their long-term medical fitness due to their health condition, according to a medical certificate issued by an occupational health services provider or according to a decision of a competent administrative authority reviewing the medical certificate (the Labour Code similarly regulates the grounds for termination of employment relating to occupational accidents and diseases). The question of whether the court must rely on the result of the medical certificate in proceedings for the annulment of the termination of employment or whether it may assess the medical fitness on the basis of its own findings has been a topic of great interest in recent years in both literature and court case law.
Development of Legal and Binding Nature of Medical Certificates
The view of the form and binding nature of medical certificates has undergone an interesting development in recent years. Until 1 April 2011, when Act No. 373/2011 Coll., on Specific Health Services (“SHS”) came into force, the legal nature of medical certificates used to be rather controversial. The Supreme Court was of the opinion that if a medical certificate was issued in accordance with the legal regulations, such administrative decision was not subject to judicial review in terms of its content (see 21 Cdo 1936/2004). Even according to expert literature, medical certificates were generally considered binding administrative decisions to be relied upon by the court in the proceedings for the invalidity of employment termination. Conversely, according to some other court decisions of the time, medical certificates were not ‘entitled to a presumption of correctness’ and they were not to be bindingly relied upon by the court. The Constitutional Court has stated that the health condition is not decided (but rather ‘ascertained’) and that the nature of a medical certificate is that of background material which does not in itself interfere with the rights and obligations of the person assessed (in this case the rights and obligations of the employee and their employment relationship) (see Pl. ÚS 11/08).
As of the effective date of the SHS, medical certificates were undeniably mere “opinions” on the health condition of the person assessed, which did not directly establish the rights and obligations of the persons assessed. These decisions were therefore not binding for the employees and the employer.
A supposed change in this concept took place as of 1 November 2017, when the amendment to the SHS gave medical certificates the form of administrative decisions (instead of the previous form of statements, opinions and notifications) that ought to be relied upon by the court. At first, it seemed that the courts would not be able to review these certificates (or their results) in proceedings for invalidity of termination of employment. This conclusion was also held by the commentary literature.
However, the Supreme Court took a different view. Referring to the previous case law of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Administrative Court, it concluded that even after the amendment to the SHS, the certificate, or the decision of an administrative authority competent to review said document, cannot be considered a decision to be relied upon in civil court proceedings without further reference. It is not an act of a superior authority vested with the right to decide on rights and obligations. According to the Supreme Court, the medical certificate is thus still only a non-binding opinion (see 21 Cdo 1096/2021).
Medical Certificates Remain Non-Binding Opinions
The conclusions of the previous case law thus remain valid to date, stating that the court may rely on a medical certificate in proceedings to determine the invalidity of the termination of employment only if it has all the requirements and at the same time there are no doubts regarding its accuracy. If the employee disputes the court decision, the question of whether the employee has lost their long-term medical fitness due to their health condition must be resolved in the relevant court proceedings by evidence, in particular by means of expert reports (see 21 Cdo 1804/2015).
Therefore, a medical certificate may not be sufficient for the employer to prove that the employee has lost their long-term fitness for work. In court proceedings, the court may come to a different conclusion by means of expert reports and declare the termination invalid.
Does an employer even need a medical certificate to terminate employment on medical grounds?
The conclusions of the current case law on the (non)binding nature of medical certificates have a flip side. In a recent judgement, File No. 21 Cdo 530/2022, the Supreme Court dealt with a case in which the employer proceeded to terminate the employment relationship on medical grounds on the basis of an ineffective medical certificate (due to non-compliance with the conditions of delivery to the employee). The court recalled that the validity of a termination of employment pursuant to Sect. 52 (e) of the Labour Code is determined by an objective finding that the employee was unable to perform the work under the contract of employment on the date of delivery of the notice of termination of employment for reasons of long-term unfitness for work due to general illness, irrespective of the conclusions of the medical certificate used by the employer as well as of any decision of the administrative authority which reviewed the medical report.
In other words, the employer may legally proceed with termination under Section 52(e) of the Labour Code even if they lack a proper medical assessment of the employee’s health condition (or even if the conclusions of such an assessment are not in favour of the employer’s opinion), but over the course of the proceedings, they must prove that the employee has actually lost their long-term fitness for work due to their health condition. At the same time, even if the employer has a formally impeccable medical certificate on the employee’s unfitness for work, the evidence may lead the court to a different conclusion.
Medical Certificates Can Be of Certain Significance
Even though the result of a medical assessment cannot be fully relied upon in court (and the employer could theoretically do without it, taking into account the reasoning of the above judgements), for reasons of legal certainty, employers may nevertheless be advised not to ignore medical certificates and to always obtain them in case of doubts about the employee’s health condition. In the worst-case scenario, when the court disputes the result of the certificate, they will at least be able to claim damages against the health care provider who drew up the certificate.
The Article was issued on 7 September 2022 on the website epravo.cz.