The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees the right to take off up to 12 weeks (all at one time or intermittently) due to medical issues, birth or adoption for the employee or immediate family members. A federal appeals court recently ruled simply because an employer made a mistake after firing a worker due to alleged abuse of FMLA leave doesn’t mean the employee can maintain a retaliation lawsuit against it.
The case is Capps v. Mondelez Global, 847 F.3d 144 (3d Cir. 2017), and the plaintiff, Raymond Capps, worked for the company (which bought Nabisco) at a plant in Philadelphia. He worked for the company and Nabisco for nearly 24 years. He suffers a degenerative bone disease, avascular necrosis, and developed arthritis in both hips which were replaced in 2003. Despite the surgery he continued to suffer severe pain and periods of inflammation he described as “debilitating.” He asked for and received intermittent leave under the FMLA.
The plaintiff’s legal problems started in February 2013 when he took FMLA time off due to leg pain. He worked a full shift on the 13th, requested a partial day off and a full day of leave on the 14th. That night he went to a local pub, became intoxicated and while trying to drive home was pulled over and arrested for DUI. On Friday the 15th, after his release from jail, he asked for another day of leave due to leg pain.
He came back to work the following Monday, worked without incident, and at the end of July 2013 he was recertified for continued intermittent FMLA leave. In August he pled guilty to the DUI charge.
In early 2014, the company’s human resources manager, William Oxenford, learned of Capps’ DUI conviction and sentence through a newspaper article supplied by an anonymous source. Oxenford had an investigation done and he learned Capps’s arrest date happened on a day when Capps had called out on FMLA leave. There were also two other FMLA leave days that appeared on the court docket.
Capps was confronted with this information in February 2014. In response, he later provided documentation from his physician and evidence from his criminal defense attorney showing he didn’t appear in court on the dates in question.
Capps was fired in March 2014 due to his alleged violation of Mondelez’s policy on “Dishonest Acts on the Part of Employees.” The company stated that Capps claimed to be out due to his FMLA leave but he failed to provide sufficient documentation to support his claim that he needed to take time off due to his medical condition. Capps disputed this conclusion, ultimately suing his former employer for retaliating against him for his FMLA leave. The District Court dismissed his case, he appealed, and the appellate court agreed with the dismissal.
The Third Circuit held that an employer who was certain that FMLA leave was abused, but actually was wrong in that conclusion, may not be liable for violating the law. An employer’s “honest belief,” even if mistaken, was enough to defeat an FMLA retaliation claim in these circumstances. With this decision, as long as an employer can show that its belief is based on an honest mistake, the employee cannot support a retaliation claim.
The Third Circuit wrote that Mondelez, by showing it had an honest belief that Capps misused his FMLA leave, carried its legal burden of demonstrating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for the plaintiff’s firing. It followed other court decisions that when it comes to FMLA retaliation claims:
- The legal issue isn’t whether an employer’s reasons for its actions are right but whether its description of its reasons is honest
- If an employee is discharged because of an employer’s honest mistake, federal anti-discrimination laws offer no protection
The Third Circuit (which reviews cases from New Jersey federal courts) in this case gave employers facing retaliation claims a plausible defense after firing an employee because he or she allegedly misused their FMLA leave, even if that firing is based on a mistake of fact. To be successful, the plaintiff would need to show not only that the leave was not misused, but also establish the company’s intent was to punish the employee for exercising his or her FMLA rights, the reason given by the employer is false, and the employer knows it’s false and is lying about it.
This all adds up to a heavy lift for an employee facing similar accusations. Each case is unique and decided on its own facts.
If you have questions or concerns about your FMLA rights or retaliation in the workplace, contact the employment attorneys for workers at Hanan M. Isaacs, P.C., at 609-683-7400, or contact us online to set up a near-term reduced fee initial consultation at our Central Jersey location in Kingston. We will listen to your facts, explain the law, and recommend your best pathways to monetary and social justice. Call today. You will be glad you did.