Good Faith Belief of FMLA Violation Justifies Termination
April 27, 2017
Isaac Graff, Esq.
Ty Hyderally, Esq.
The Third Circuit recently held that an employer’s honest belief that an employee was abusing FMLA leave can defeat an FMLA retaliation suit and serve as sufficient grounds for terminating the employee. In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, 845 F.3d 144 (2017), the plaintiff, Fredrick Capps (“Capps”), took intermittent FMLA leave from 2003 until his termination in 2014, as a result of a disease which eventually required him to have both hips replaced. As a result of this procedure, Capps was often in severe pain, which rendered him unable to complete some of his job functions, and, at times, required him to take time off when the pain was excessive. Capps had his leave recertified by his treating physician every six months, enabling him to call out of work, using his FMLA leave as needed based on his condition.
In February, 2014, Capps called Mondelez’s FMLA hotline and stated that he would be out for the day due to excessive pain. That same day, Capps was arrested for a DUI after being pulled over on his way home from a bar. The next day, after spending the night in jail, Capps once again called Mondelez, indicating that he would be using his FMLA leave due to his leg pain. Capps never reported his arrest to Mondelez, as it was not required by company policy. Nearly a year later, employees in Mondelez’s HR innocently came across the information relating to Capps’ arrest and DUI conviction. After investigation, Mondelez became aware that Capps had used his FMLA leave on the same dates on which he was arrested and had appeared in court. Capps was given opportunities to provide Mondelez appropriate documentation to support his FMLA requests on those dates. After Capps provided Mondelez with undated doctor’s notes and incomplete documents which purportedly justified his absences, Mondelez fired Capps for violating Mondelez’s Dishonesty Acts Policy, which states that “any employee found guilty of a dishonest act would be subject to dismissal.” Id. at 147. Capps then initiated his lawsuit against Mondelez for retaliation in violation of the FMLA.
The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court and granted summary judgment for Mondelez. In its analysis, the court noted that the FMLA “prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against an employee or prospective employee for having exercised or attempted to exercise FMLA rights.” Id. at 151 (citation omitted). The court explained that in FMLA retaliation claims, the plaintiff must be able to show proof of the employer’s retaliatory intent. However, “[w]here an employer provides evidence that the reason for the adverse employment action taken by the employer was an honest belief that the employee was misusing FMLA leave, that is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for the discharge.” Id. at 152 (citation omitted). Here, there is no evidence that Mondelez ever denied Capps’ FMLA requests or that he was prohibited from returning to work after his leave, nor was there any animus between Mondelez and Capps as a result of his frequent FMLA absences. Rather, the court found that Mondelez had a clearly defined policy in place, it had consistently complied with the requirements of the FMLA when dealing with Capps’ requests and it sufficiently investigated the claim before terminating Capps. Therefore, its termination of Capps based on its good faith belief that he was violating the FMLA was legitimate and non-discriminatory.
This case is instructive for employees on FMLA leave as it reinforces the importance of always having sufficient medical documentation to support every FMLA request. Without such documentation, an employer’s good faith belief may be enough to justify termination for alleged misuse of FMLA requests.
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